Olympics: Russia rejects Sochi workers abuse claims

Russia on Wednesday dismissed a rights watchdog's report that workers building sites for the Winter Olympic Games next year in the resort of Sochi were abused and cheated out of their wages.

Human Rights Watch said many workers from post-Soviet nations had their passports confiscated and worked 12-hour shifts with few days off as the Kremlin raced to finish Olympic construction with one year to go until the 2014 Games.

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.

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.

"They are trying to not pay but as a rule, they pay up immediately after we phone them or appear in person," she told AFP, referring to the employers at the construction sites.

As the result of the checks, 200 people were fined a total of 2.6 million rubles ($86,000), she noted, adding her service requested three criminal cases be opened into suspected abuses.

Asked about the HRW report, Ivanenko said every such claim should be looked into separately.

Eduard Bidzhakov, head of the migration service for Sochi, said that even if some workers' rights might have been violated on occasion, abuses were not systematic as claimed by the rights watchdog.

"It's a made-up issue," Bidzhakov told AFP, saying the report was not representative enough. "You have to compare the number of those polled with the total number of workers."

As of last year, 16,000 workers from outside Russia were employed on Olympic construction sites, Bidzhakov said.

The New York-based rights watchdog said its study was based on interviews with 66 migrants working at the sites from 2009 through 2012, with the report's authors speaking of "serious, consistent reports from workers on several of the major Olympic sites."