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March 25, 2014

Migrant Workers Fight for Human Rights in Sochi

By Dawes Cooke

While athletes from around the globe competed at the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russian human rights activists competed behind the scenes for the world’s attention. At the Olympiad, Human Rights First met with human rights defender Semyon Simonov, an advocate for migrant workers’ rights. Similar to efforts of LGBT and environmental activists at the Games, Simonov fought to ensure that the voices of human rights victims were not drowned out by the fanfare.

Simonov works for Russian human rights organization Memorial’s Migration and Law program. His focus is providing legal help to migrant laborers who were the victims of abuse while working on construction projects associated with the Games.

According to Simonov, somewhere between 21,000 and 70,000 migrant laborers from Russia and abroad were brought to Sochi with promises of plentiful jobs and high pay. Many had to endure poor living conditions and wages that were a fraction of what they had been promised. Some had their travel documents confiscated and their work contracts withheld upon arrival, putting them at the mercy of their employers.

Authorities began rounding up and deporting undocumented workers when it became clear that the Olympics infrastructure would be finished on time. Employers often took advantage of this opportunity to withhold back pay from their workers.

Simonov’s mission is to protect these migrant laborers from this kind of abuse. Often, he says, a phone call from Memorial is enough to pressure employers into paying workers their duly earned wages. If not, he arranges free legal representation for the victims and brings their employers to court. Russian state-owned media typically does not air stories about these migrant workers, he says, but such abuse was widespread in Sochi, and victims are typically powerless to do anything about it.

Simonov himself has faced some problems from Russian authorities, and believes that he was targeted for his years of work before the Games.

Human Rights First commends Semyon for his role in fighting for human rights in Russia and in defending the voiceless and powerless.