THE BLOG
02/07/2014 10:12 EST | Updated 04/12/2014 05:59 EDT

Human Rights In Sochi: If Exploited Migrant Workers Built It, Should the World Still Come?

Faster. Higher. Stronger. Cheaper?

As we gather excitedly before our televisions this month to marvel at Olympic quadruple jumps and backside 1440 triple corks (yes, these tricks look as cool as they sound), yet another human rights issue in Sochi marks a stain on the ice rinks and ski chalets themselves.

MSNBC reported late last month that hundreds of construction workers in the Russian host city "have yet to be paid" for months of labor in building the main media centre and other houses for Olympic families and volunteers. This revelation came after a major report by Human Rights Watch documented abuses of migrant workers from central Asia in the construction of Sochi's Olympic venues, including non-payment of wages, confiscation of passports, and forced work hours in excess of Russian labor law.

The exploitation of migrant workers is a global phenomenon--economic disparity between countries and regions pull desperate laborers away from their homes to any far-away job opportunity they can find, in whatever conditions. Rich economies seek cheaper labor to cut costs in competitive markets, and governments have little incentive to proactively protect non-citizens from abuse.

Construction booms leading up to mega-sporting events like Russia's Olympic Winter Games amplify the problem, but also present a golden opportunity for ordinary sports fans to make a difference.

Last September, Nurmamatov Kulmuradov, a migrant worker from Uzbekistan, sought help from a Russian human rights group to retrieve unpaid wages for construction work on the Olympic media centre. Kulmuradov was arrested less than a week later for allegedly violating migration law, detained in a small cell with 20 others--with no food, medicine or beds--and ordered deported the next day, without pay for two years' work. His name, and those of tens of thousands of other migrant workers who built Sochi's Olympic village, won't be among those celebrated over the next two weeks of competition.

A similar circumstance is emerging in Qatar, host of the 2022 World Cup of soccer, where almost 400 Nepalese migrant workers have died in the past two years of construction. Amnesty International and other groups have found Asian workers living in cramped accommodation, forced to work in mid-day heat exceeding 40 degrees, unpaid for months on end, and denied free drinking water.

Much of this exploitation is far removed from our daily lives in North America and Europe, and it's hard for us average citizens to pressure other governments to enforce or improve their labor protections. However, when the spotlight of a global sporting event is shone on a country, there is an opportunity for pressure to change.

"Sports fans who also care about human rights can help publicize about them through social media," says Jane Buchanan, a director and Russia specialist at Human Rights Watch. "The more that it's discussed publicly, these institutions like the IOC and FIFA are influenced by public pressure, and by pressure from the companies who sponsor them. Through our elected officials and national Olympic committees, everyone can ask that their country take a stand on these abuses."

After years of advocacy by human rights groups, Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak announced that 277 million rubles (C$8.8 million) in back wages would be paid to exploited workers. But this amount doesn't count the wages of migrant workers already deported or forced to leave after waiting months to be paid, according to Jane Buchanan. The International Olympic Committee has committed in the past to ensuring the Games are a "force for good" and to pressing host countries to preserve and protect human rights and dignity. But the Sochi scenario shows they can press harder.

World soccer authority FIFA has demanded an update from Qatar's World Cup organizers after the latest revelations of worker deaths. Just imagine if the world's soccer fans rallied around the cause of human rights with the same passion they apply to cheering for their teams.

For us, we were hooked on the Sochi Olympics from the first snowboarding event last Thursday. The Games are intended to fascinate us, and to bring the world together over peaceful competition and the challenge to advance the height of human achievement. These aspirations go beyond the ice and snow, to the architecture, pageantry and cultural innovation (those infamous "twin toilets" notwithstanding) surrounding the Games.

But the Olympic motto of "building a better world through sport" is tainted--along with the Olympic prestige of the host nation--when the Games are built on short cuts and exploitation. Let's use our cheering voices to also speak out for the vulnerable workers on whose backs the Games were physically built.

This week's challenges:Tweet or Facebook post this article along with your favorite Olympic moments, to spread awareness about the plight of migrant workers in global sporting events. Contact the Canadian Olympic Committee and Canadian Soccer Association to insist that Canada vocally support the rights of migrant workers in future Olympic and World Cup construction.

Craig and Marc Kielburger founded the international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 13 cities across North America and the United Kingdom, inspiring more than 180,000 attendees and millions more online. For more information, visit www.weday.com.