FIFA WORLD CUPS have a long history of eliciting human rights concerns, and the next one — in Russia in 2018 — is no different. Despite efforts by the soccer governing body to establish a stronger policy on human rights, a new report from Human Rights Watch paints a troubling picture of intolerable labor conditions at seven stadium sites.
In interviews with 42 Russian and migrant workers, the human rights watchdog learned of pervasive issues with unpaid or late wages; workers forced to toil outdoors in sub-zero temperatures; and irregular provision of work contracts and documentation. According to the trade union Building and Wood Workers’ International, there have been at least 17 deaths at the stadium sites. Also concerning were tales of intimidation and retaliation when workers raised concerns about their labor conditions.
This is not the first time FIFA has come under fire for overlooking poor labor standards. In response to criticism, it has created a system to monitor working conditions at World Cup stadiums, formed an advisory board on human rights and just last week published a new human rights policy. But the illusion of progress was marred in March, when the Norwegian magazine Josimar reported on the exploitation of North Korean workers during the construction of the Zenit Arena in St. Petersburg. The Human Rights Watch report has shed light on similar violations at World Cup worksites across Russia.
The report should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Russian labor practices. The country is notorious for its lax standards and limited government oversight. During the preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, there were reports of similar abuses, particularly among migrant workers. Human Rights Watch recommended that Russia strengthen its worker protections, investigate violations and enforce penalties for employers. While these are important steps, it would be naive to expect drastic change from a government that has thus far shown little respect for human rights.
The report’s recommendations to FIFA, however, are viable and necessary. The organization has shown interest in solidifying its commitment to human rights. It should start by expanding its monitoring system to include unannounced inspections and interviews in multiple languages. It also needs to improve its transparency and reporting so it can be held accountable by external observers.
But all of these changes are stopgaps designed to patch over a problem of FIFA’s own making. In recent years, the organization has selected countries with substandard labor practices and poor human rights legacies. Its new human rights policy suggests that it will now take human rights considerations into account in the World Cup selection process. If it wants to avoid more chilling reports of exploitation and abuse at World Cup sites, FIFA should follow through on this commitment during the upcoming bidding process for the 2026 World Cup.
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