Olympics: rights group slams Sochi worker abuses

International monitors Human Rights Watch took Russia to task Wednesday over abuses faced by migrant workers rushing to prepare for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, but Moscow quickly rejected the claims.

In a report released a year before the February 7, 2014 start of the games, the US-based group said many construction workers from post-Soviet nations had their passports confiscated and worked 12-hour shifts with few days off at the Caucasus Mountains resort.

Russian authorities issued an unusually swift, choreographed response to the report, making the tight-lipped officials in charge of migration and labour inspection available for interviews.

"It's a made-up issue," Eduard Bidzhakov, head of the migration service for Sochi, told AFP, underling that even if some workers' rights might have been violated on occasion, abuses were not systematic as claimed by the rights watchdog.

Russia last hosted the Olympics as part of the Soviet Union in 1980 and winning the bid for the 2014 winter Games, backed by sports-mad President Vladimir Putin, has been seen as a massive boost for national pride.

The Olympics are seen as a shop window for Russia's tourist trade, with the goal of turning Sochi into a winter vacation destination for foreign visitors.

The vast array of construction projects, running from sports venues and transport system to high-end hotels, have pulled in tens of thousands of workers, including over 16,000 migrant workers from outside of Russia.

The report, entitled "Race to the Bottom", was based on interviews with dozen of workers from countries including Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia, Tajikistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan, who were employed in Sochi between 2009 and 2012.

The organisation said it uncovered abuses including being cheated out of wages, and confiscated passports and work permits, apparently aimed at coercing workers to remain in exploitative jobs.

"There is a contrast between the Olympic ideals of human dignity and the very harsh reality on the ground for migrant workers who are building the world's most expensive Olympics," Minky Worden, a top Human Rights Watch official, told reporters in Geneva.

"The Russian labour law has been violated, but the international Olympic movement has an obligation to higher standards here," she added.

Russian authorities questioned how a survey of 66 workers out of thousands could paint a true picture.

"You have to compare the number of those polled with the total number of workers," said Bidzhakov.

Olympstroi, the state agency overseeing Olympic projects, insisted it was committed to supporting workers' rights.

"The observation of Russian law -- including questions concerning rights of workers involved in the Sochi construction -- is constantly monitored" by the regional authorities, Olympstroi said in a statement.

Olympstroi said it had conducted more than 1,300 checks between 2011 and 2012, finding that violations of safety standards were among the most frequent transgressions.

Between 2011 and 2012 the agency received five complaints from workers about wages and that all of them were addressed, it added.

But Olga Ivanenko, head of labour administration and control for Sochi, conceded that employers on the sites had repeatedly been found in violation of legislation.

Last year her department had conducted 150 checks and exposed 858 instances of violation of labour legislation, most of them wage arrears.

Human Rights Watch's Jane Buchanan, author of the report, said it also raised broader concerns.

"We are seeing a lot of the same pattern of same abuses every time there is an Olympics or a major sporting event in a country where there is no total respect of human rights and labour laws," she told reporters.

The Switzerland-based International Olympic Committee, which governs the games, said it took such allegations seriously.

"Where cases of mistreatment or abuse are identified –- and clearly related to the staging of the Olympic Games –- the International Olympic Committee has a long-standing commitment to follow-up on those issues," it said in a statement.

The IOC underlined that whenever such allegations arose in any Olympic host nation, it sought "precise and clear responses" from local organisers and the authorities.

"We have done so already for cases relating to Sochi," it said.

Ecologists and rights activists have also criticised preparations for damaging the environment and forcing locals out of their homes.