The complex task which sports governing bodies face to successfully respect human and child rights around mega sporting events has been illustrated by one of the trade unions involved in the construction of stadiums for the World Cup in Russia next year.
Children Win spoke to Ambet Yuson, General Secretary of the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) about the Decent Work Monitoring System, set up in August 2016 by FIFA to identify and address labour rights violations affecting workers at World Cup construction sites. The Monitoring System is supported by the BWI, the 2018 World Cup local organising committee (LOC) and the Russian Construction Workers Union (RBWU).
Although Yuson is satisfied that the System is addressing issues one by one, for example the poor living and working conditions of North Korean workers at a stadium in St Petersburg last year, he also believes that a failure to address “systemic problems” is inhibiting much quicker progress.
For all of FIFA’s commendable actions this year, this serves as a valuable lesson and warning for those working in the field of child rights, such as Terre des Hommes which co-ordinates the Children Win campaign.
Since BWI and its Russian affiliate, the RBWU, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with FIFA and the FIFA LOC last August, the BWI has participated in at least 13 joint inspections of stadiums with the Klinsky Institute reporting on their findings and addressing each individual incompliance.
Yuson told Children Win: “The Klinsky Institute conducts inspections every three months. This is important since in construction after three months, there’s a new stage which presents another issue, another health and safety precaution. In construction you have to regularly do the inspection, and they are doing that now through the Klinsky Institute.
“The inspections are working in terms of identifying the problems but what is not working is analysing and assessing what are the systemic problems that should be resolved to ensure workers’ safety and decent working conditions.
“There are safety and health violations, and they are being solved, but then you are getting more violations and you have to solve them again. So you are following it but you are not solving the systemic problem and this is where FIFA can come in.
“If you don’t find a new and better solution you won’t solve the problem, you will just chase the problem.”
Part of the issue is that the Klinsky Institute is talking to more than 100 individual sub-contractors at the various construction sites.
Yuson added: “The inspection is done by technical people who are good at identifying the problem and making recommendations but to solve it FIFA should talk to stadium owners and main contractors to hold them accountable and ensure that recommendations are being implemented and enforced.”
Both the BWI and Terre des Hommes are members of the Human Rights Advisory Board set up to support FIFA in March. Whereas BWI advises on construction issues and labour rights, Terre des Hommes focuses on the protection of child rights when planning and delivering the World Cup finals.
The experiences of the BWI so far this year demonstrate the complexities faced when FIFA’s positive intentions around human rights are put to the test, and are an indicator of the scale of the task that lies ahead for the governing body – for example, when it focuses more on child rights.
“Construction is difficult work and there will always be problems,” said Yuson. “There is no perfect construction site anywhere in the world and there will always be accidents.
“It’s a question of how you handle the problem. FIFA will not be measured if there is an accident – it is not their fault, it is a construction company building the stadium – but FIFA will be faulted if they know it is happening and they have not acted.
“It is not enough to say ‘everything is working’. Let us focus on preventing more accidents, let us focus on ensuring workers are paid properly. I think FIFA has to do more.”
There are four main issues which the BWI have identified, including health and safety on site – for example a lack of personal protective equipment and problems with scaffolding – and with migrant workers, who comprise more than 50% of the workforce and who have lower wages compared to domestic workers. The BWI say there have been six strikes over late or non-payment of wages.
Yuson says FIFA dispute what constitutes ‘strike action’ and says this is indicative of its approach. “FIFA is focusing on ‘it is not a strike, people just walk out’. For me that is irrelevant, the point is people take action when they have a problem. Solve the problem, not define the action.
“Another issue that is critical for BWI is the increasing number of fatalities; people are dying. For BWI, even one death is too many. There are 17 workers who have died and we alerted FIFA to this and we have yet to receive a satisfactory response as to the mechanisms that are in place in all the stadiums to prevent future fatalities.
“Lastly is the problem of the sub-contractors. You have over 100 sub-contractors and our observation is the main contractor does not have control over the sub-contractors. If you look at the issue of the violation of the health and safety, and of the payments, it is happening at sub-contractor level. So you have to address these issues.”
This is where main contractor liability comes in and it is something that BWI consistently advocates for not just in Russia, but globally as well. There are good models and case studies that can be replicated if there is a will and commitement.
Yuson believes the coming months will define the true extent of FIFA’s commitment to the labour rights of workers, and human rights in general.
“There is time. We are joining inspections because we are proposing a systemic solution that could prevent problems in future. Our concern between now and the opening (of the World Cup) is to prevent more accidents and make sure workers are paid properly.
“It is important to note that many of the accidents as you get closer to the end of construction. If you look at Sochi most of the accidents happened towards the end of the deadline when the construction is in a rush. We should learn from this and make sure that more precautionary measures, then you have to put in more health and safety officers.
“I stress again the important role FIFA can play and I believe they recognize this. FIFA can and should bring together all of the people who know strategically how we can avoid accidents, fatalities, safety and health violations, labor rights problems, and more human rights problems. FIFA can and should work with all stakeholders to solve problems.”
With the construction of stadiums and facilities currently in the headlines in the build-up to the World Cup finals next year, and in Qatar four years later, the Decent Work Monitoring System offers a glimpse into the extremely detailed and time-consuming work that lies ahead for FIFA.
There is much more to be done. Whether it is the rights of migrant workers on construction sites, their families back home or other children affected directly or indirectly by FIFA’s showpiece event, the governing body must not shy away from its duty to protect human rights. Especially since it has taken the first few promising steps.