Did the Olympic Committee Break International Guidelines by Allowing Forced Labor in Sochi?

By Julie Inglese

In the years leading up to the 2014 Winter Olympics, thousands of migrant workers from countries such as Armenia, Bosnia, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and the Ukraine arrived to Sochi, Russia to build an Olympic-worthy city from the ground up. Though most of these workers came to Russia willingly, they quickly faced inhumane treatment by their host country. Specifically, migrant workers in Russia were denied the proper housing promised by their employers and payment for their labor. This raises the question: Has the International Olympic Committee (IOC) violated the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) by allowing the Olympic Games to proceed in spite of the human rights violations suffered by migrant workers?

The UNGP’s are guidelines adopted based on the Special Representative’s “Protect, Respect and Remedy Framework,” which was unanimously adopted by the Human Rights Council. They are intended to provide practical advice to governments, companies, and other stakeholders on how to better protect individuals and communities from the adverse human rights impacts of business activities.

The Olympic Committee’s decision to allow Russia to host the 2014 Olympic Games is questionable from the standpoint of international human rights guidelines, but is not itself a violation of international norms.

However, by virtue of their business relationship, the Olympic Committee assumes responsibility for any human rights violations Russia commits in connection with the Olympic Games. The Committee has a business relationship with Russia as the host country for the 2014 Olympic Games, and the Committee is a business enterprise within the meaning of the UNGP. Under the UNGP, a business enterprise like the Olympic Committee must “avoid infringing on the human rights of others.”

This obligation under the UNGP extends not only to infringements “caus[ed] or contribut[ed] to . . . through [the enterprise’s] own activities,” but also to “adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to [the enterprise’s] operations, products or services by [the enterprise’s] business relationships, even if [the enterprise] ha[s] not contributed to those impacts. In other words, the Olympic Committee may violate the UNGP if Russia or one of the entities in its supply chain causes an adverse human rights impact.

The UN’s Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights’ (OHCHR) commentary on the UNGPs states: “[t]hough it may have neither caused nor contributed to the impact, it may be involved because the impact is caused by an entity with which it has a business relationship and is linked to its own operations, products or services.” Further, the OHCHR’s examples demonstrate that an enterprise is responsible if its product is being used in accordance with a violation by a third party.

Therefore, the point when human rights violations came to light in Russia in connection with preparation for the Olympics is the point at which the Committee became implicated in these violations and had an obligation to intervene.

Under the UNGP, the Olympic Committee could be held accountable to the extent that Russia’s “Olympic-related activities” have adverse human rights impacts. This is especially true in a situation where the human rights violations were well documented and clearly visible to the Committee. A Human Rights Watch report detailing the working conditions of sixty-six migrant workers in Sochi reported that many of the workers never signed a contract, were never issued work permits, were never paid, and were forced to suffer through inhumane living conditions because their employers took away their passports, leaving them with no way home.

The denial of these rights has had further repercussions. Workers went to Russia expecting hard work but also substantial compensation. Reuters spoke with a 41-year-old Serbian man named Matic about his experiences:

“It was a dodgy deal, but I thought: it's only two months. The money was good, and I needed it,” Matic said. He described his nightmare stating, “[w]e finished the job ahead of schedule and demanded our pay.” “A Russian man came in wielding a gun. He was like the baddie in a gangster movie. We took what little money they gave us and left.” Because no contracts were signed, the workers have no documentation for how many hours they worked or how much money they are owed. This is making it impossible for workers to fight the legal battles that have arisen because of the denial of pay. Further, because no work permits were granted many employees were detained in Russia for working illegally, resulting in the workers’ home countries needing to step in to free them.

To add insult to injury, workers were subject to inhumane living conditions. Matic described how after a 27-hour bus ride to Sochi, he was given lodgings in an empty room where he rigged a light bulb with a scavenged power cable for light. Other workers explained, “we used outdoor toilets and had to pay 150 roubles ($4.30) for a shower.” “There were only four toilets for about 200 construction workers.” Another worker explained how the food employers promised them was inedible. “The food has no taste at all, it's impossible to eat it, we have to throw it away.” The workers were also denied medical care when they fell sick and breaks after working long hours. The working conditions were horrible and there was no pay.

On January 10, Russian officials released their estimates of the total wages stolen from Sochi workers and vowed to pay $8.3 million in wage arrears. However, there are still over 700 workers with no documentation who have not been compensated. It is unlikely they will ever see this money.

Under the UNGP, the IOC has a duty to protect migrant workers from this type of abuse. It appears IOC is making an effort to resolve the issue by trying to convince Russian officials to pay the workers; however it is not clear whether the IOC is doing enough to satisfy their obligations under international guidelines.