Josimar can reveal that at least 110 North Koreans have worked at the Zenit Arena in St Petersburg, one of the venues for the 2018 World Cup Finals. International experts describe the workers from North Korea as both slaves and hostages. One North Korean worker was found dead in a storage container outside the stadium.
Text: Håvard Melnæs
Translated by: Lars Johnsen
Interpreter: Artem Filatov
Photos: Denis Sinyakov and Sergey Grachev
St Petersburg, Russia
The huge park awaiting anyone who steps outside Krestovsky Ostrov metro station is split down the middle by a wide and paved avenue. Zenit Arena is located on the park’s far end, two kilometres away. It has cost 1.5 billion dollars and has taken 11 years to build and is still not finished. It has been a site of systematic abuse of migrant workers, slave-like conditions, corruption and death.
Lined along both sides of the park, are refreshment kiosks, caravans and merry-go-rounds. A sharp wind cuts through the fog. This is a popular park for strolls. It is a Sunday in February 2017, but hardly anybody is out walking.
Chaos and corruption
In 2006, long before Russia had even bid for the right to host the 2018 World Cup, Zenit St Petersburg, one of Russia’s biggest clubs, decided to build a new stadium. The much-loved, but outdated Petrovsky Stadium had been built in the 1920s. The new Zenit Arena was going to be Zenit St Petersburg’s new fortress. The plan was that the club would move into their new home in December 2008.
In mid-March 2017, the arena is still not finished. The electrical wiring is vulnerable, cracks in the concrete are visible – which lead to water leaks – and the ground underneath the pitch vibrates. Documents provided to Josimar show that Russia’s security agency (FSO) had 22 notifications after an inspection in January 2017.
“Back in 2006, at the start of the project, the estimated cost was 220 million dollars. Eleven years later the amount is 1.5 billion dollars, according to the government’s own web page. This figure does not include the cost of infrastructure being built in relation to the stadium. A new road and metro station are also under construction. The total price tag could be over 3 billion dollars,” Dimitry Sukharev of the St Petersburg office of the anti-corruption organisation Transparency International tells Josimar.
“Based on guidelines and standards for quality assurance, we estimate the total cost should have been around a third, or less than a third, of the actual cost,” Sukharev says.
“The only explanation for the dramatic increase in spending, is corruption. Another reason is that project descriptions were written after the building work had been done. Budgets were also made after the money had been spent – to comply with the disappearing money.”
How many millions of dollars that have disappeared through corruption, probably nobody knows. Whilst a few have enriched themselves along the way, tens of thousands of workers are yet to be paid what they were promised.
Almost every day from 2006 until March 2017, thousands of people have been carrying out work on the stadium and surrounding area. The majority of these workers hail from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics. And North Korea.
“A minimum of 1,500 workers have been on-site nearly every day since 2009. This we know. Many of them have been migrant workers. Similar to practices on other construction sites in Russia, it is highly unlikely they have been treated properly. Nobody cares about the law, about contracts. Migrant workers have no rights,” Sukharev says.
A project manager who has worked on Zenit Arena since 2015, supports this view.
“I would say that about 80 per cent of the workforce have consisted of migrant workers while we’ve been here. Some have had employment contracts and have been paid as promised. But I hear that a lot of workers haven’t been paid at all. Too many dishonest subcontractors have been involved. I’ve been in the construction business for twenty years, and I have never seen a more chaotic site than Zenit Arena,” says Pavel, a project manager working for one of the many subcontractors doing work in and around the stadium.
He is employed by one of Russia’s biggest construction companies, headquartered in Moscow. Pavel shows us his ID card, a requirement for everyone who does work on the stadium. He agrees to talk to Josimar on the condition that we hide his identity. According to him, the Zenit Arena was a relatively safe place to work until the summer of 2016.
“When [vice governor of St Petersburg] Igor Albin and his staff arrived, it became a complete mess. There were serious accidents on a weekly basis. From August until Christmas, four workers died,” Pavel claims.
How did they die?
“After falling onto the concrete and from electrocution.”
Josimar have contacted city officials and the press secretary of the ambulance service for comments regarding accidents and deaths. Neither have responded.
Bear on a bike
Journalist Sergey Kagermazov, working for the independent news site MR7, has kept a close eye on the construction process for a number of years.
“The authorities refuse to talk about migrant workers, accidents and deaths,” he says.
In September 2016 he went undercover as a worker at Zenit Arena. The most important task was to stop the water leaks. Everywhere, there were small holes in the concrete. Water poured out.
“My team consisted of twenty workers. We were divided into two groups. One group plugged the holes, the other collected debris. I worked from eight in the morning until five. According to labour laws, you are not allowed to work more than eight hours per day. But the foremen promised that those who wished to work longer hours, would get extra pay. Some worked until ten at night. Others finished work just in time to catch the last metro out of there. I asked the foreman about getting a contract. He said I shouldn’t worry about that,” Kagermazov explains.
On 11 February, Zenit Arena opened. Sort of. There were singing, dancing and acrobatics.
“Even though the stadium was not finished, Putin demanded it opened,” Kagermazov claims.
Warning signs could be seen everywhere:
“If you see water leaking, water damages or drainage problems, call the following number immediately”.
10 000 people were present for the opening.
“It was more a test than an opening, to see how the arena handled that many people. There were music, songs and a cycling bear.”
A real bear?
“Yes. This is Russia.”
The proceedings were delayed by two hours. It had been scheduled to start at three o’clock, but did not begin until five.“Waiting for the show to start, people wanted to buy food and drink. But the card payment system did not work. Only people carrying cash could buy anything.”
A gift to the city
The summer of 2016, Igor Albin, a former minister in Vladimir Putin’s government, today the influential vice governor of St Petersburg, decided to remove Transstroj as main contractor for the building of Zenit Arena. Until last year, Transstroj was owned by the oligarch Oleg Deripaska.
Vice governor Albin then ‘encouraged’, according to Pavel, a number of construction companies in St Petersburg to work for free on the stadium site until the end of the year in exchange for future assignments and fewer inspections.
Time had become the biggest enemy of the completion of Zenit Arena. At this point in time, the project was already eight years overdue. And a year later, in June and July 2017, Zenit Arena would be one of the host stadiums for the Confederations Cup.
Senior government figures, like President Putin, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Vice Prime Minister (and head of the World Cup committee and former club president of Zenit) Vitaly Mutko all hail from St Petersburg. The latter two are known for their vociferous support for the city’s biggest football club.
One of the construction companies who followed vice governor Albin’s ‘encouragement’ was Dalpiterstroj. They specialise in building big apartment complexes in and around St Petersburg. Towards the end of August, the company showed up at Zenit Arena with 60 North Korean workers. The North Koreans were assigned to do cosmetic work on the stadium site.
“For free, Dalpitersroj did work on the arena worth many millions of roubles. It was ‘a gift to our beautiful and grand city’,” Pavel says.
What do you mean when you say that vice governor Igor Albin ‘encouraged’ construction companies to present ‘a gift to our beautiful and grand city’?
“Had these companies said no to Igor Albin, they could have said goodbye to future assignments. Also, they would have been subjected to on-site inspections and book audits,” Pavel claims.
One of the other firms who followed Albin’s ‘invitation’ was Seven Suns, a company known for building luxury apartments for the city’s well-to-do. They brought 50 North Koreans to do paint work on the stadium.
Around the same time as several new construction companies began working for free on the arena, a North Korean middleman knocked on the door of Pavel’s office.
“He said he could provide 100 skilled North Korean workers who were prepared to work ‘around the clock’ until the end of the year. The price was six million roubles. Four million would be sent to the government of North Korea. The rest would be split among his company and the workers. The workers would be paid 600 roubles daily. We said no. We were fully staffed,” Pavel says.
He goes on to say that the North Koreans doing stadium work started early and ended their day late. They lived in storage containers situated in a confined and fenced-in area just outside the stadium.
In November, a few Russian websites told of a North Korean worker, who had died near the stadium. According to Russian police, the man died of a heart attack.
“People told me he was found in one the containers they live in,” Pavel says.
According to sources, several international organisations contacted FIFA and expressed concern, after the news of the dead North Korean stadium worker had spread. FIFA promised to investigate. The organisations who had notified the governing body of world football never heard back.
Workers and weapons
“They are like robots. All they do is work, work, work. They work from seven in the morning until midnight. Every single day. They are never off. They are very good workers, but they look unhappy. They have no life.”
A heavy-set Russian construction worker, with a mouth full of gold teeth, tells us about his colleagues on the building site Shushary, a few kilometres south of St Petersburg. The construction company Dalpiterstroj is building huge apartment complexes in the area. A significant amount of the workforce is North Korean. It is Saturday, just past nine o’clock in the morning, but the workers are already hard at work. Behind walls topped with barbed wire, workers are hurrying about. Guards with dogs keep a watchful eye on the site’s entrance. The majority of the workers are North Korean. The others are Russians, Tajiks and Uzbeks.
The Russian worker does not want to say his name, and does not allow us to photograph him.
“I don’t want to get into trouble. I advise you to leave before the guards come and chase you away.”
A provisional kiosk selling pierogis, alcoholic beverages, cigarettes and other items, is located outside the site. The female cashier says North Koreans sometime shop there.
“Usually cigarettes only,” she says and adds that she pities them.
“They don’t do anything but work. When I arrive, they are already here. When I leave at night, they are still here. It seems a hard life.”
Later, we meet two North Koreans on their way out of the building site. They are carrying big plastic buckets to be filled with drinking water. They speak neither English nor Russian, and become visibly annoyed when the photographer starts clicking his camera. Their ‘camp’ is situated two or three hundred metres away from the construction site. Behind barbed wire fences partially surrounding a snow-covered area, outdated shipping containers have been placed. They serve as temporary homes for the North Koreans. Here, the 100 or so North Koreans rest and sleep between the long shifts.
The workers break for lunch, and one North Korean after another passes through the iron gates. Some are grinning, others hardly notice us, as they slowly and in silence walk towards their midday rest.
Now, in the middle of February, they work at this particular site. But from August until the end of 2016, many of these North Koreans worked at Zenit Arena.
The use of North Korean workers is controversial in the international community.
Several international humanitarian organisations describe the North Koreans as slaves and hostages. Up to 90 per cent of their pay is taken from them. ‘A day off’ is an unknown concept to them. They are under 24-hour surveillance. They have no rights. The North Korean regime abuse them, as do their employers abroad. Many of the workers who have left their home country are on ten-year contracts.
As a consequence of the international boycott of North Korea, due to the country’s frequent testing of nuclear weapons, the regime has in recent years sent more and more workers out of the country. For a country with limited sources of income, these workers provide vital currency for its regime. The United Nations suggests this provides North Korea with a yearly income up to 2 billion dollars. Others, like the South Korean humanitarian organisation NK Watch, suggest an even bigger figure. This is money which, according to a number of international organisations, helps finance the country’s nuclear weapons programme. Marzuki Darusman, the former UN special investigator for human rights in North Korea until 2016, describes the North Korean workers abroad as slaves.
Several humanitarian organisations are now working to hold those countries who use North Korean labour accountable.
“The North Korean workers are completely exhausted, mentally and physically. They work and live under terrible conditions. Their passports are confiscated, which practically makes them into slaves. They know, if they complain, there will be consequences, for themselves and their families back home. That is the biggest difference between them and other migrant workers. An Uzbek worker knows, if he complains, there’ll be no consequences for his family at home.”
Olga Tseitlina is a lawyer working solely with human rights cases. Last year she had a North Korean client, Kim. For safety reasons, she does not reveal his full name.
“He was ordered by the North Korean regime to work in the timber industry in a small village in the eastern part of Russia. He was told it was his duty to help his beloved homeland, that it would benefit his family.
“This happened shortly after he had served ten years in the armed forces, the minimum time for national service in North Korea. In the military, he and many others were regularly beaten by superior officers. No-one dared complain – even harsher methods of punishment awaited those who did. Kim describes his experiences in eastern Russia as being close to what he went through in the military,” Tseitlina explains.
The lawyer says Kim was paid five dollars per month. The rest of his salary was passed on to the regime. As a timberer in the Siberian forestry industry, the workdays were long and hard. There was no such thing as a day off.
“They were given an apple, an egg and some rice during their working day. That was it,” she says.
Kim and the others lived in a camp without running water or the possibility of having a shower. His body was full of insect bites. Lice were common. For three years, Kim lived as a slave, before he did what most North Koreans workers abroad would never dare: He ran away.
With hardly any money and without identity papers, Kim headed west.
After a few months on the run, he met a Russian woman. The relationship became romantic, and they have since had two children, two sons aged five and three.
Write or die?
Last autumn, Kim was arrested. Shortly after, a court decided he was to be sent back to North Korea.
“Kim contacted the police to apply for a residence permit. He did not want to live on the run anymore. He had begun a new life, started a family, and wanted to stay,” Tseitlina says.
“Instead of helping, they set the wheels of a deportation process in motion. At the same time they contacted the North Korean authorities. Russia and North Korea have an agreement: Potential defectors shall be reported immediately. The court decided that he was to return to the regime. I stress this particular point, because, previously, when North Koreans have been expelled from Russia, they have had the possibility to seek asylum in South Korea or other countries. In this instance, he was to be sent to North Korea,” Olga Tseitlina tells us.
The North Korean embassy in Moscow got involved, as soon as they got word of Kim’s case. They wrote to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and included a letter from Kim’s wife and son. They missed him, the letter said, they thought of him every day, they urged him to return to their beloved homeland.
“Kim says his wife and son have been forced to write these letters – that they would be killed if they refused. He remembers seeing, at a young age, mass executions. Men and women, old and young, shot in the head by firing squads,” Tseitlina says.
On 10 February the lawyer was informed that her client had won the appeal due to a technicality. Kim wasn’t deported.
We ask if it is possible for us to talk to him.
“He is afraid an interview will be considered high treason, with fatal consequences for his Korean wife and son as a result. The North Korean government knows his identity and knows where he lives. He even gets stressed if I talk to his wife on the phone”.
Since escaping the work camp in Siberia, he has supported himself by taking odd jobs in the St Petersburg area. Right now he is working at a car wash.
“He dreams of a Russian residence permit. That will be difficult. We hope to reach an agreement with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, to get legal residency in a safe country for him and his Russian family,” she says.
Threats and silence
To meet and talk to migrant workers, would be a difficult task. Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) have been under constant pressure from the Kremlin in recent years. Many of them have been accused of cooperating with foreign intelligence agencies, and have lost their financial support or folded as a result. In January, Bellona, a Norwegian environmental organisation, was accused of being a hideout for foreign agents.
In a city of 500,000 migrant workers, there are today only three organisations that help migrant workers. Until 2013 there were around ten.
Two of those still in existence, like the St Petersburg branch of the Red Cross, do not wish to meet Josimar. They have no qualms about talking to journalists friendly to the Russian regime. Independent Russian journalists can also be granted an “audience”. Foreign journalists are kept at arm’s length. But Andrey Yakimov of the organisation PSP Foundation decides to meet us.
His offices are in the attic of a Lutheran church in the centre of town. Church services take place on Sundays. Today is a Thursday. PSP Foundation employ five or six people, as well as dozens of volunteer field workers. Half of its financial support is public Russian money, the rest comes from small donors abroad. Andrey Yakimov is a lawyer and social anthropologist. His special field is ethnic minorities and migrant workers. One in every ten workers in St Petersburg is an migrant worker.
“We cooperate well with the leaders of the migrant community. We provide them with information about their rights and give advice like carry identification papers at all times and how to handle police harassment,” Yakimov says.
The number of migrant workers arriving in Russia is closely linked to the value of the currency. If the the rouble is weak, many return home. When it strengthens, a lot of them return.
We ask if migrant workers run into trouble.
“The main issue is the lack of rights in the workplace. They work long hours, get a meagre salary, and most work without contracts. Many aren’t paid at all. This is a huge problem, especially at large construction sites. But this happens in the cleaning and transport industries too. The city council, even, abuse migrant workers.”
A 2014 report by the ombudsman of St Petersburg confirms this: migrant workers are paid less, have less job security and only a few have work contracts.
The treatment of the migrant workers is Russia’s litmus test, according to Yakimov.
“So we don’t become a slave state,” he says.
“Migrant workers are good workers, but they are abused all the time. By employers, middlemen and foremen.”
Yakimov denies that PSP Foundation is a hideout for foreign agents.
“Corruption always starts at the top,” Andrey Yakimov sighs.
We ask whether he is aware of North Korean workers in St Petersburg.
“They don’t come here voluntarily. They are under contract with the regime at home. Companies in Russia set up by the North Korean government sell their workers to potential employers,” Yakimov explains.
“Most of the North Koreans do not work in this area, but in Siberia, the Urals and so on. A few end up in St Petersburg – perhaps 2,000 – according to our field workers and other sources.”
He’s been told frightening stories of what the North Korean workers go through.
“They’re under almost constant surveillance. They have very little contact with others. They’re paid a minimum. There is no end to the ungrateful job tasks they are given. These are unskilled labourers, with little or no knowledge of modern tools. When recruited, they are promised bigger rice rations and Kim Jong-un’s eternal gratitude,” Andrey says.
Dr Andrei Lankov teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul and is regarded as one of the world’s biggest authorities on North Korea. Before we get our phone interview under way, Lankov warns us via email that “western media have a tendency to dislike his views”.
“Yes, it is correct that only men with wives and children at home are sent to work abroad. The government naturally wants to safeguard itself against defectors. Anyone tempted to defect knows it can have horrible consequences for the families back home. Yes, it is also true that their passports are confiscated. What else could you expect?,” says Lankov.
The export of workers in recent years has become Kim Jung-un’s biggest source of income. Several international experts have warned this export helps develop the regime’s nuclear weapons programme. Andrei Lankov confirms this.
“North Korea have exported minimum 100,000 workers, maybe even double that. Mostly to China, Russia and the Middle East. This is important income for the regime,” Lankov says.
“About 30,000 North Koreans work in Russia. Previously, the majority worked in forestry in the easternmost part of Russia. Today you’ll find most of them working in the textile industry or on construction sites.”
Lankov says the North Koreans aren’t forced to work abroad.
“Work abroad is very attractive to the North Koreans. They try everything to be of the few fortunate enough to be selected. To get to Russia, you must pay a large sum, about 700 dollars, a fortune for people in North Korea. To them, Russia is a dream destination. In China, they live in prison-like conditions. In Russia, they have more freedom.”
In St Petersburg, they live in old storage containers behind barbed wire fences….
“Still, their living conditions are a lot better than at home in North Korea. You must remember, these people are without hope. If you compare the North Koreans’ living conditions in Russia with what you have in Norway, it is hell. But it’s paradise compared to what they have at home. The regime does not care whatsoever about its people. The only thing that matters to them is to survive politically.”
How much of the workers’ wages does the regime take?
“Somewhere between 30 and 50 per cent of the income.”
A subcontractor at Zenit Arena claims a North Korean middleman said the regime kept four out of six million roubles?
“That’s probably correct, though it’s usually lower.”
A North Korean defector in Russia tells us he was forced to witness mass executions as a child?
“It’s likely he is telling the truth when he says he saw mass executions as a child. For a few years they discontinued these mass executions, but they still happen now and then.”
It’s Friday afternoon and time for prayer. Loads of people are on their way towards St Petersburg Mosque. The building can accommodate up to 5,000 worshippers.
In a nearby café, we’re drinking tea with Alisher. He does not want to give his surname. He says he needs to be careful. Alisher is 50 years old, from Uzbekistan. He has legal residence permit in Russia that is up for renewal every year. He is in St Petersburg to work. His wife and four children are still in Uzbekistan.
Alisher came here for the first time in the early 2000s. He has returned every year since. During that time he has had different jobs. Earlier, he mostly worked in construction. In the later years, he has made a living driving taxis and buses.
Back in June 2010, he was a foreman for a team of 32 workers at Zenit Arena.
“A middleman from Tajikistan contacted us in an area where a lot of migrant workers live. He asked if we were interested in work. We said yes and were taken to Zenit Arena. Outside the stadium, there were several hundred storage containers. Some of these were used as offices. In one of these offices, a Russian sat behind a desk, photocopied our passports, took pictures of us, and issued identity cards. To access the stadium, everyone working there needs an ID card.”
Alisher asked for a work contract, but was told they would sort that out later.
“We were handed a list of things to do, and what our payment would be when the tasks had been completed. They encouraged us to finish the jobs as quickly as possible. The faster we worked, the better we were to be paid.”
“I had 32 workers in my team. We worked ten hours a day, seven days a week. We worked as fast as we could, to get the bonus we had been promised: 4,000 roubles per square metre of cast concrete,” Alisher says.
He and his workmates lived in containers outside the stadium.
“14 people lived in our container. All had a mattress, but it was crowded and uncomfortable.”
He estimates that somewhere between three and four thousand people worked at the stadium. Most were migrant workers.
“There were far too many people there at the same time. It was chaotic.”
Did you see workers from North Korea?
“Yes. That is, I believe they were North Koreans. I can’t be certain. I didn’t talk to them. They kept to themselves.”
Alisher believes most workers were paid in cash.
“Almost every day, armoured vehicles full of cash came to the stadium site. They were escorted by armed police. The money was brought into a designated container on the stadium site – this was the payment office.
“As a foreman, I was the one who picked up the cash. The first time I was there, I signed a piece of paper which said I had received 50,000 roubles. Then I signed a different piece of paper, which said I had received 25,000 roubles. Then they handed over 25,000 roubles in cash.
“It was pointless to argue. Armed police were watching. There was a long queue. As soon as I had the money in my hands, I was ushered through a different door than the one I had arrived through.”
After a month, Alisher understood he and his workmates had been played.
“When this was repeated four weeks in a row, I had had enough. I went to see my boss and told him I wanted to quit. He promised to pay me and my co-workers the agreed-upon amount, if only we stuck it out one more month.
“I had no reason to believe him. Some of the other workers stayed there four months without ever being paid close to what they had been promised.”
Did you complain to anyone?
“To whom could we complain? That would only have led to unpleasantries.”
What happens to your family in Uzbekistan when you don’t get paid? Are there any consequences?
“No. My wife stocks up. She buys maybe 400 kilos of both potatoes and onions. That way there’s always food in the house. She buys food for six months at time.”
Next to a metro station in the city centre, we meet Rustam, Ibe and Kockhor from Kyrgyzstan. All are married with children. Ibe tells us he became a father for the third time just four days ago. After two sons, they had a girl.
“Of course I wish I was at home now. But I get to see her when I return home for a holiday in the autumn.”
Do you have a photo of her?
“No. But I hope she looks like her mother,” he says with a smile.
The three friends, all in their late twenties, are in Russia to work and to provide for their families at home. From August 2016 until January this year, they were part of a 45-man team working on Zenit Arena.
“We were told we would be paid a daily wage of 2,000 roubles – paid out every day. The first week we received what we had been promised: 2,000 roubles cash in hand every day. Then we thought ‘we can trust these people’. A couple of weeks without any pay went by. Then we started to get paid again, but a lot less than agreed. Most days we received between 500 and 800 roubles. We complained, but were told we would receive the full amount later. That never happened,” Rustam says.
Why didn’t you quit?
“Every month they replaced the foreman. The replacement always promised to work everything out. Besides, there were no other jobs out there. We felt we didn’t have a choice but to stay and hope for the best. When fully paid, we can send up to 30,000 roubles per month home to our families,” Ibe says.
What are the consequences when you don’t get paid?
“We need the money to provide for our families. If we don’t send money, the children go hungry,” Rustam answers.
Along with Ibe, Kockhor and three other Kyrgyz men, he shares one room in a three bedroom flat. The two other rooms are occupied by migrant workers from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
They describe the stadium work as difficult.
“We were handling huge amounts of concrete. There was a lot of heavy lifting. At the end of a work day, I was exhausted,” Ibe tells us.
They were handed uniforms and hard hats.
“Still, a big building site like this is not danger-free. We saw a lot of workers without safety apparel. The workers from Tajikistan were especially known for taking risks. They would climb the scaffolding, high above the concrete floor, with no safety precautions in place,” Rustam says,
Accidents were frequent.
“At least one ambulance was present at the stadium site at all times. We saw some ugly accidents, but I don’t know if anyone died. The foremen never told us anything.”
They believe between three thousand and five thousand people worked on the site whilst they were there.
Where were these workers from?
“It looked as if most were from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. We also saw a lot of North Korean workers. The lived in containers in an area no other workers had access to.
Did the North Koreans stick to themselves, or did they socialise with other workers?
“They kept to themselves. They don’t speak Russian. And we don’t speak Korean. But they worked a lot. More than anybody else.”
The World Cup is one of the most lucrative sports events. With that in mind, what are your thoughts about not getting paid?
“That, we don’t have time to think about. We are proud of the work we have done. When the World Cup kicks off, we will turn on the TV and say: ‘We helped build that stadium’. We are not even angry at the people who haven’t paid us.”
“Times are hard around the world, so too here in Russia. We live in a time where everybody fools everyone, where brother fools brother. In such times, these things can happen.”
“Russian taxpayers do not need this tournament.”
Maxim Reznik, the leading opposition politician in St Petersburg and a good friend of Boris Nemtsov, Russia’s leading opposition politician until he was murdered in a central Moscow street a little over two years ago, sips his tea slowly. We are sitting in an Armenian restaurant. The loudspeakers blast Russian pop music.
“I like football, but Putin is using the World Cup as a propaganda tool. This is a way to show that we are the biggest, the best. At the same time, it is a way to mask the many and permeating problems in Russian society. Sport is the best way to shift the focus away from real issues. Like they did in Soviet times. Back then it was important to be the best at chess and ice hockey. Chess because we are the world’s brightest. Ice hockey because we are the world’s toughest,” Reznik says.
The World Chess Championship matches between Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karajakin last November got enormous attention in Russia, he says. Karajakin is the ultimate propaganda hero for Vladimir Putin because he is from Ukraine, but today holds Russian citizenship.
“The main reason for hosting these big sports events is public relations. Putin wants to demonstrate to the world how capable and powerful Russians are. Another reason is of course that he and his friends can make lots of money. The Sochi games wasn’t primarily about stealing money, but about glorious on-field results. Even though they were achieved through a state-sponsored doping programme,” Reznik dryly comments.
How involved do you think Putin was in the doping programme?
“I think he simply passed on a message that we had to win. How we would win, mattered less. He wasn’t the one switching the tests at night,” Reznik says and adds:
“The World Cup is different. Everyone understands that the Russian national team will not win. In this case, the financial aspect, i.e. the possibility to enrich themselves, is more important than in Sochi. Even though we won’t win, a selected few will become very rich because of this tournament.”
Zenit Arena has so far cost 1.5 billion dollars, at the expense of other projects in St Petersburg. The building of new hospitals, schools and kindergartens have all been delayed because more and more public money has been transferred to the stadium project.
“Six times the city council has decided to provide extra funding for Zenit Arena. Six times I voted against. I am trying to get a federal watchdog to investigate the construction process. We need to do what we can to find out where the money has gone,” Reznik says.
“The total amount is obscene. It is completely impossible to understand why it has become so expensive.”
Three football matches, one metro station
Several court proceedings are underway. The former main contractor Transstroj and the City of St Petersburg are involved in a number of court cases. Vice governor Igor Albin’s predecessor, Marat Oganesyan, stand accused of fraud of more than 200 million roubles. And this is, according to insiders, just the beginning.
In August 2016, Metrostroj got the contract as the new main contractor at Zenit Arena. A surprising choice, given that Metrostroj first and foremost builds metro stations and rail lines.
“Nobody know why they won the contract. But we can speculate. It’s likely they are connected to someone influential in St Petersburg,” Dimitry Sukharev of Transparency International says.
Zenit Arena is located on the island of Krestovsky, an area housing some of the wealthiest in the city. The World Cup host city of St Petersburg, to fulfill FIFA’s security demands, must also provide the stadium with adequate transport links which means they have to build a new metro station.
“We do not need this metro station. This is a wealthy neighbourhood where almost everyone has a chauffeur. Other areas of the city accommodate hundreds of thousands of people, without access to proper public transportation. We need to to build this completely superfluous metro station because of three football matches,” Maxim Reznik says, shaking his head.
We ask him about life as an opposition politician in Russia.
“It’s hard to answer that in a few words. On the one hand, I can do more, I have influence, I’m heard by many. On the other hand, I get a lot of attention from the FSB and others, who believe I am an agent working for foreign governments, and so on. They tap my phone, hack my computer – they search everything, hoping to find compromising material. I was imprisoned for a while. Anything can happen. To be an opposition politician means you put yourself at risk,” Reznik explains.
Thinking of the future, he is a careful optimist.
“All political institutions in Russia are weak. The opposition is weak because it’s put under enormous pressure. The power of the regime is weak, because it only pretends to have power and influence, like all authoritarian regimes do, and because it lacks broad support among the population.”
The Russian Candidate
As previously covered by Josimar, Russia’s then Minister for Sport, Vitaly Mutko, along with the Nordic countries, was the driving force behind Čeferin’s candidacy for UEFA President. The unknown Slovenian became the boss of European football after a closed election process where lobbying was the recipe for success.
Mutko is the head of the 2018 World Cup Organising Committee. His preferred president, Aleksander Čeferin, also became the chairperson of the Organising Committee for FIFA Competitions, with responsibility for all FIFA tournaments, including 2018 World Cup in Russia.
When Josimar asked Aleksander Čeferin about transparency and human rights during a press conference in Copenhagen in September of last year, he underlined that these were important issues to him.
To the follow-up question whether he had any worries regarding the World Cup in Russia, he answered, with an expression that read resignation:
Because of the doping revelations, match-fixing scandals, violence among fans at the Euro 2016 in France, the rights of those working at the stadiums, consisting of migrant workers from poor, former Soviet republics, that they don’t get paid and so on, if Russia is a safe travel destination for gay supporters, about Russia’s involvement in Ukraine and Syria?
Our list clearly bored the soon-to-be UEFA President. After a pause, he answered:
“There are two types of people: positive and negative. I am positive.”
The answers, my friend
Josimar sent nine questions regarding our discoveries in Russia to the UEFA President. After a week we got an answer, from a spokesperson at FIFA, which amongst other things, said:
“FIFA condemns any human rights violations and, if identified, would not tolerate such conditions on any of the FIFA World Cup stadium construction sites. Lastly, the link you make between North Korean migrant workers in Russia and FIFA contributing to the nuclear weapons programme in their home country is, to say the least, far-fetched and outrageous.”
Josimar also sent questions to Mr Vitaly Mutko and after a week, and coincidentally two minutes before the answer from FIFA, we got a reply from Russia LOC Media Office.
How will you describe the construction process of the new Krestovsky stadium?
“The construction of the ’Saint Petersburg Stadium’ has certainly been very challenging and required our fullest attention. Together with the federal government, both Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and President Vladimir Putin have been appraised of the work as it progressed. On a number of occasions, when serious problems occurred they have also intervened. In July 2016, the St. Petersburg municipal government replaced the general contractor over repeated delays and cost overruns.
However, such issues are not unusual in a project of this magnitude and complexity as countless other cases around the world show. A number of factors that are unique to this stadium must be taken into consideration. It is a multipurpose arena with very sophisticated architectural features, such as the retractable roof and the sliding pitches. What is more, the climatic conditions in St. Petersburg have impacted the project as well.
At present, it is being finalised to host the opening and final matches and other games of the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup. And in 2018 it will be one of the key stadiums for the FIFA World Cup.”
The work on the stadium started in 2006 and was supposed to be completed by December 2008. Can you explain the massive delay?
“Work was started under entirely different assumptions, but there were never plans to finish it by 2008. Originally, the stadium was planned to be built for the purposes of FC Zenit. However, the project was soon revised due to the long-term plan Russia developed with respect to hosting major sports competitions. From the original inception, its design and layout was amended three times: in 2008, 2010 and 2013 to accommodate events such as the FIFA World Cup and EURO 2020.”
Will the stadium be ready for the Confederations Cup, and will the opening match be played in April (between Zenit St Petersburg and FC Ural) as planned? If the answer is no, will the stadium be ready for the World Cup 2018?
“Yes. The stadium was formally commissioned by the St. Petersburg authorities on 29 December 2016 and a first test event was held on 11 February 2017. 10,000 spectators, media and other guests attended an opening event which put the facility through its paces for the first time. The second test event was held on 22 February with more than 30,000 spectators attended music festival. The opening match pitting Zenit St Petersburg and FC Ural will go ahead as scheduled – on 22 April. There is no doubt that ‘Saint Petersburg Stadium’ will successfully host 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup upcoming summer.”
Krestovsky stadium is the most expensive arena for sports in the world: Can you elaborate on the total cost?
“We beg to differ with you. The stadium in Saint Petersburg is by far not the most expensive sports arena in the world. According to the latest figures released by the city authorities, final costs will amount to 43.8 billion roubles (some $728.3 million at the current exchange rate). You will note that the construction costs for quite a number of sports arenas was higher, in some cases exceeding one billion, notably in the USA for American football. Also, Wembley Stadium in London is said to have cost 1.25 billion US dollars, and the Olympic Stadium in London built for the Summer Games in 2012 was said to have cost some 775 million US dollars.”
Many others projects in the city of St Petersburg, like building new hospitals, schools, kindergarten etc, has been postponed by the city council due to the cost of the new stadium. Is the total price of Krestovsky Arena money well spent or does hosting the World Cup come at too big a cost?
“Municipal budgeting falls under the competence of the municipal authorities. We are not in position to comment on such decisions.”
There has been a series of problems with the vibration under the playing field: is this fixed?
“Climatic conditions in Northern Europe are very demanding and pose additional challenges when such sophisticated solutions are used. Our engineers are addressing this issue and the playing field will be stable.”
According to our sources there has been many serious accidents, and also several deaths, during all these years of construction at Krestovsky stadium. How many people have been involved in accidents and how many workers has died?
“Health and safety as well as decent working conditions of all workers involved in the construction and renovation of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia stadiums are of major importance to FIFA and the LOC. These principles are an integral part of the Sustainability strategy for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia and one of the key strategic objectives.
Not being in charge of construction matters nor having direct supervisory competences, the LOC does not have precise information regarding the number of accidents during the entire period of the construction work at “Saint Petersburg Stadium”. However, it goes without saying that the LOC very much regrets any incident that occurs on a construction site for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, especially so the four fatal accidents which unfortunately happened at Saint Petersburg stadium construction site starting from September 2012.
To address such risks as well as health and safety concerns and to contribute to the decent working conditions at the 2018 FIFA World Cup stadiums, FIFA and the LOC have, for the first time in the build-up to a FIFA World Cup, developed and implemented a unique tailor-made system for monitoring working conditions of workers engaged in the construction and renovation of ten 2018 FIFA World Cup stadiums, including the arena in Saint Petersburg. Our monitoring system is being implemented with substantial involvement of the Russian Trade Union of construction industry and Building and Woodworkers International (BWI). Their participation and monitoring contribute a lot to ensuring that rights and concerns of workers are duly considered and addressed.”
How many workers in total have worked at the stadium during 11 year of construction?
“The number of workers involved in the stadium construction very much depends on the construction stage and the types of construction works. Therefore, it may vary significantly during a year and over the construction period. In 2016, the largest number of workers at the stadium reached almost 4,200 (end of November 2016). At present, about 1,700 people are working on the site.”
And how many of the workers have been migrants workers?
“The total number of migrant workers involved in the stadium construction very much depends on the construction stage and the types of construction works. Therefore, it may vary significantly during a year and over the construction period. For example, in February 2017 this number was approximately 55%. These workers mainly came from Ukraine, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia and Belarus.”
We have been informed that the majority of the migrant workers didn’t have any contracts, didn’t receive the pay they were promised, many didn’t receive any pay at all. Are you concerned about the fact that the fundamental rights for works hasn’t been in place?
“Information received following visits and surveys by national and international experts, including trade union representatives, do not corroborate your findings. In 2016, these experts performed on four occasions two-days inspection visits to the stadium in Saint Petersburg to ensure that decent working conditions are in place. The focus was laid on checking the labour agreements, timely payments of salaries, health & safety issues as well as workers’ living conditions. During these visits, said experts and trade union representatives interviewed close to 100 workers. We did not get any evidence of the issues you are referring to. However, as a result of the visits and their findings, all incompliances with respect to labour law and other inconsistencies were reported to the stadium and city authorities together with the recommendations for measures to remedy them.
For FIFA and the LOC, the respect of human rights of all workers involved in the construction of the 2018 FIFA World Cup stadiums are of utmost importance. We are committed to making the working conditions compliant with all applicable international standards as well as Russian legal requirements.”
Do you think it is okay to use workers from North Korea? If yes, feel free to elaborate.
“On average, almost 50% of the workers involved in the construction of the ten 2018 FIFA World Cup stadiums are migrant workers. It is very important to stress that for FIFA and LOC the respect of human rights of ALL workers involved in stadiums construction is very important, regardless of the workers’ nationality or citizenship. Within the framework of our decent working conditions monitoring system we monitor and assess working conditions of all workers at the stadium construction sites, independently of their migrant status. It is also being checked that migrant workers are legally employed, received all relevant permissions and are treated in accordance with the applicable legal requirements and standards.”
Did you know that there have been hundreds of North Korean workers at Krestovsky stadium?
“As far as we are aware there were only few workers from North Korea and they performed finishing works during a short period of time.“
People with knowledge of the working conditions at Zenit Arena describes the workplace as “a complete mess”. In your opinion; Is this a correct description?
“The construction of the stadium in Saint Petersburg has not progressed without hitches. That is why the situation was taken under control at the highest level of governance and government. As you know, the stadium is in the final stage of preparation and will host FIFA Confederations Cup matches in June/July this year. A FIFA delegation has recently conducted an inspection visit in the stadium and was pleased with the progress. We have no doubt that all site works will be completed on time.”
The leader of the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO), Gerd Kristiansen, is not surprised by the findings in Russia.
“For big events, like Sochi and Qatar, we know that basic workers’ rights are not being upheld. And slavery is illegal.
“On the question ‘should Russia lose the right to host the World Cup’, I am tempted to say yes. But we believe in dialogue. We must demand inspections and put pressure on FIFA. I will make sure the Norwegian Football Association (NFF) address this at FIFA level,” the LO-leader says.
Linda Hofstad Helleland, the Norwegian Minister for Culture and Sport, writes the following in an email to Josimar:
“This is unknown to me. But if this information is correct, it is a serious matter.
“Workers’ conditions in Russia are first and foremost the responsibility of the Russian authorities. To me, that the government upholds its own labour laws and their international commitments, is unconditional.
“I take it for granted that FIFA, who has awarded Russia the hosting rights, secures that the World Cup host provides proper working conditions on the stadium sites.”
“As a FIFA member, the NFF should make sure questions of workers’ conditions are on the agenda within the football governing body.
“And I will invite the NFF to a meeting to hear what action they will take with FIFA.”
Sven Mollekleiv is president of the Norwegian Red Cross and the head of the NFF Ethics Committee.
“The football organisations – like the NFF, UEFA and FIFA – must follow international guidelines regarding basic human rights like work conditions. Football has a communal responsibility when it comes to international tournaments. The debate regarding these issues in Qatar is on-going. It is imperative that what goes on in Russia is also scrutinised,” Mollekleiv says.
The Ethics Committee Chairman will ask for a meeting with the NFF.
“The NFF has an independent responsibility to directly pressure UEFA and FIFA and to wholly commit to full transparency in all such matters. To say we are only one of 208 FIFA member countries is not good enough. Everyone has a responsibility. It is a deciding factor for the credibility of football, and I will challenge the NFF Board that this will be addressed properly.”
The Slaves of St Petersburg
Josimar can reveal that at least 110 North Koreans have worked at the Zenit Arena in St Petersburg, one of the venues for the 2018 World Cup Finals. International experts describe the workers from North Korea as both slaves and hostages. One North Korean worker was found dead in a storage container outside the stadium.