The Olympics, Large Sporting Events, and Recalibrating the Discussion on Human Trafficking (It’s Not Just For Sex, People) — Stephanie Hepburn

The following post is by Stephanie Hepburn, coauthor of Human Trafficking Around the World: Hidden in Plain Sight:

Human Trafficking Around the World, Stephanie HepburnIn preparation for the Winter Olympics this month and the Paralympic Games in March, Russia has spent an estimated (U.S.) $51 billion transforming the coastal town of Sochi and the neighboring Caucasus Mountains. Construction has included an Olympic stadium, a village for athletes, arenas, visitor accommodation, a media center, modern transportation and telecommuting systems, and hotels. These projects required tens of thousands of workers, including 16,000 migrant workers from Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine. These low-wage workers often earned (U.S.) $1.80 to $2.60 an hour performing odd jobs or working as carpenters, welders or steel fitters. Some employers didn’t pay full wages or didn’t pay workers at all.

As you may have noticed in your news feed, numerous publications ranging from Salon to the New York Times recently put out articles focused on debunking the human trafficking myth surrounding large sporting events. Experts and journalists concluded that human trafficking does not increase during large sporting events. The arguments were fallible as they were framed exclusively around sex trafficking and failed to include the most prevalent form of human trafficking, forced labor. The Super Bowl was the impetus for the discussion and dialogue ended as soon as the event did, even as the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics was on the horizon. So far the influx of Sochi news has focused on stray dogs, privacy issues regarding surveillance videos in hotel room showers, gripes about unfinished hotel rooms, and the cost of the Sochi megaprojects, but not the workers who built them.

Grandiosity is the recent trend of sporting events, resulting in pressure on hosts to live up to bigger than big expectations. This means that in a short amount of time governments have to build billions of dollars worth of state of the art structures and accommodations. What experts on human trafficking know is that a sudden demand for construction and low wage labor creates opportunity for unscrupulous employers to come in and exploit and traffic workers. This is a worldwide issue, regardless of whether we are examining post-Katrina New Orleans or Russia’s sudden economic (and resulting construction) boom. (I talk about this in my book Human Trafficking Around the World: Hidden in Plain Sight.)

Since 2009 Human Rights Watch documented exploitation of migrant workers that labored on the Russian Olympic projects. Exploitation included the confiscation of passports and work permits. This is a common trait of human trafficking as it is a successful means to control the movement of workers. (Meaning, they can’t leave if they don’t have their documentation.) Workers also experienced 12-hour workdays seven days a week and unpaid (or excessively delayed paid) wages. Some employers placed migrant workers in overcrowded housing and reported them to authorities if they complained about the abuses, resulting in deportation. It is unclear how many cases rose to the level of human trafficking, but certainly these abuses warrant further investigation and a step up in migrant worker protection on the part of the government. The good news is that the Russian government has acknowledged (U.S.) $8.34 million in unpaid wages among several of the more than 500 companies that participated in the development of the Sochi Olympic site. In response the government stated in January that the identified employers would pay workers all unpaid wages. The issue is that hundreds of the workers have been detained and deported for alleged violations of employment regulations or migration, making it unlikely that they will receive payment. If human trafficking did take place, the deportation of victims (critical witnesses) would pose a serious obstacle to pursuing cases against the traffickers.

It isn’t just in Russia where labor exploitations occur in sporting event-related construction. It has been reported that migrant workers in Qatar may be experiencing exploitations in preparation for the 2022 World Cup where large construction projects are already underway. Not only is there a sudden demand for low wage labor in Qatar but also abuse of migrant workers in the construction sector is already a significant issue. The labor system in Qatar actually facilitates human trafficking through the combination of a sponsorship system that ties an employee’s legal status to the sponsoring employer (much like in the U.S., Japan and the U.A.E.) and high recruitment fees that put employees in a potential position of debt bondage. Other abuses include the confiscation of passports and lack of payment (pay withheld for months or non-payment), unsafe working conditions, 12-hour days and squalid and overcrowded housing. The Guardian reported that numerous Nepalese migrant workers have died while on the job in Qatar of cardiac arrests, heart failure, blunt injuries and fractures attributed to falls and suicide, and traffic accidents.

Abuses related to large sporting events are not an anomaly, and not all are linked to construction. Child labor was used to create Olympic logo goods for the Olympic Games in Greece and in Beijing. During the timeframe surrounding sporting events governments increased the marginalization of populations through displacement, which adds one more vulnerability to human trafficking of already disregarded populations. Children and/or the homeless were removed and relocated during the World Cups in South Africa, Japan and Korea, and the Olympic Games in Sydney. Displacement of the Roma community occurred before the Olympics in Barcelona and Greece.

Proper identification of human trafficking (for sex or forced labor) is dependent on numerous variables such as inclusion of all forms of human trafficking in domestic law, adequate training of law enforcement personnel and the opportunity for enforcement to come into contact with victims. Worldwide, forced labor is just beginning to be acknowledged in domestic laws and adequate training, identification and enforcement is often still lacking. In Russia the plight of sex trafficking victims (dubbed the Natashas) has been well documented in movies and the media. Lesser known is that Russia’s economic resilience has meant that it has sustained consistent economic growth. This has resulted in a need for affordable labor, making Russia a destination for human trafficking. The Migration Research Center estimates that 1 million people are exposed to exploitative labor conditions characteristic of human trafficking in Russia, such as withholding of documents and pay, physical abuse and poor living conditions. Russia does have specific anti-trafficking laws, but —much like in other nations —traffickers are often charged under lesser offenses. It is probable that human trafficking, which is chronically un- or under-identified not just in Russia but worldwide, is also un- or under-identified during the timeframe surrounding these large sporting events, despite an increase in police personnel.

It’s true that the focus on human trafficking needs to be consistent and a spotlight shouldn’t only be shined when there is a large sporting event on the horizon. That said we also shouldn’t ignore reality. There are factors associated with large sporting events that attract traffickers such as a flux of people, a sudden demand for low wage labor and the possibility of hefty earnings on mega-cost construction projects. When these factors exist unscrupulous people will take advantage and exploit victims, if they can.

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