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VIDEO: Meet the Olympic Workers Still Waiting for Payday

Mother Jones

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In November, Milenko Kuljic left Bileca, his rundown town in Bosnia and Herzegovina, for Sochi. He was lured by a recruiter who promised he’d make about 2,000 Euro ($2,700) a month building infrastructure for Sochi’s winter Olympics .

Kuljic says he began working for a major construction company overseeing work at some of the games’ most iconic venues, where he says he never got anywhere near the amount of money he was promised. Instead over two months of working, he says he was only given the equivalent of about $1000 for basic living expenses. living in a dormitory with pay-to-use showers, sharing four toilets with some 200 other workers. All the while, he says his employers promised to eventually pay him in full.

At the end of the two months, he was suddenly arrested, detained for a week, and then flown home with 122 other workers from the Balkans on a flight chartered by the Serbian government.

Hundreds of other guest workers from all around the world feared a similar fate, and fled Sochi without pay to avoid arrest, and the arguably worse punishment it would bring: a 5-year ban on returning to Russia as a guest worker.

It was Kuljic’s second time seeking work in Russia. The first time, he says no one cared about workers, like him, who lacked official work permits: “I suspect that they told the authorities about us so that they wouldn’t have to pay the money they promised.”

Kuljic’s experience is far from unique. Of the approximately 96,000 workers who helped build Sochi’s Olympic buildings, parks, and infrastructure about 16,000 were migrant workers, according to Human Rights Watch. Most hailed from former Soviet countries, primarily Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan, as well as from communities—like Kuljic’s in Bosnia—where families rely on money sent by workers abroad.

For years, such workers put up with rampant xenophobia and exploitative conditions—overcrowded housing, paltry and unsavory food—in pursuit of a decent wage in Russia. But this fall, with just six months left until the games, thousands of migrants were rounded up and deported. In October alone, according to Russia’s Federal Migration Service (FMS), over 3,000 workers were expelled from the Krasnodar region, which includes Sochi.

Migrants to Russia face routine discrimination, as nationalists blame them for taking work from employable Russians. Polls have shown that two-thirds of Russians believe immigrants are prone to crime, and, whether or not they came legally or illegally, want to reduce their numbers in the country.

As non-Russian workers flooded Sochi, such anti-immigrant sentiment escalated—and was encouraged at the highest levels of government.

“It would be very easy for people of other nations to take over this land,” Alexander Tkachev, the governor of the Krasnodar region, declared in August of 2012. “We have no other choice: we will squeeze them out, restore order, ask for documents…so that those who are trying to come here on illegal business understand that maybe it’s better they don’t come.”

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VIDEO: Meet the Olympic Workers Still Waiting for Payday

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