Brazilian waving flag on Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Rio Olympics – workers pay a high price for poor planning
Rio 2016 is no Qatar, but a succession of mistakes and willingness to risk workers’ lives to compensate for bad planning has tarnished Brazil’s Olympic moment.
If London 2012 is anything to go by, the excitement of the Olympics will really catch alight once the opening ceremony is properly underway tonight. Perhaps in London some of us were cagey about the Olympic experience because of the dire predictions of chaos in the capital, but if we were, then Danny Boyle’s magnificent opening ceremony soon dispelled doubts that – anyway – turned out to have been unfounded.
Whether Brazil’s opening ceremony will be enough to dispel the doubts clouding its second “mega sporting event” of the decade remains to be seen. Whereas London’s detractors were predicting problems during the event, the run up to Rio 2016 has already seen its fair share of chaos as a dangerous scramble to be ready for the start of the games has taken hold.
The sad truth is that the safety legacy of the London games – with no deaths on any of the official Olympic projects for the first time ever – is being squandered by a combination of bad planning and a failure to learn the lessons from London’s preparations. So far Brazil’s two big sporting bashes have cost the lives of twenty workers – nine on 2014’s World Cup and eleven for Rio 16 – with plenty of examples of the kind of exploitation and squalid living conditions more commonly associated with Qatar’s 2022 preparations.
In an important detail, the Rio Olympic Stadium itself was casualty free (though there were repeated violations of health & safety standards, so perhaps by as much luck as judgment), and it was other construction, including vital infrastructure, such as a tunnel and superhighway, that brought the death toll. That’s something that Qatar, with its obsession with what goes on inside stadia rather than what happens right outside, should bear in mind.
But while the preparations for Rio have clearly fallen short of what they should be, at least Brazil had some things in its favour. Most problems in global supply and sub-contracting chains are caused by companies choosing to source from countries with weak government regulation and either absent or persecuted trade unions movements. By choosing Brazil, at least the IOC haven’t chosen the worst of the worst (we’re still looking at you, Qatar).
On at least two occasions the Brazilian Labour Ministry’s intervention has put a stop to some serious abuse. Last year a sting operation uncovered accommodation so appalling that some of the workers were choosing to sleep outside. 30 workers were crammed into a house infested with vermin and contaminated with sewage which, adding insult to injury, their employers were actually charging them for.
The Ministry then found evidence that Rio’s organisers, falling rapidly behind schedule, had brought in agency workers to fix the problems that were being reported as preparations were finalised. As well as the organisers failing to fill in the necessary paperwork, the Ministry interviewed workers that reported working almost all day long. “Workdays of up to 23 hours were also verified,” the Ministry confirmed. Rio 16, the name for the game’s organising committee, faces big fines once the investigation is finished. The Ministry found 1,715 infractions of health & safety standards and stopped work 50 times where workers lives were at risk. Despite this, though, it’s clear that cutting corners and last-minute recruitment of informal labour has been the approach to making up lost time, with the Ministry of Labour’s team of 10 auditors far too small to catch every transgression.
As the phrase goes, ‘lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine‘. However, in mega-sporting events bad planning does constitute a human emergency for the workers who get swept up in the authorities’ desperate effort to cover their mistakes.
As John Ruggie, the former UN human rights specialist who was commissioned by FIFA to write a detailed (if largely ignored so far) set of recommendations on human rights in relation to World Cups, wrote:
“The tournament lifecycle is relatively short and the pressure to meet deadlines increases as the event approaches. That fact may heighten risks to workers’ rights where major construction is required, including to workers’ health and safety. Freedom of association and restrictions on excessive overtime may also be ignored.”
Brazil’s unions also played a part in making sure conditions weren’t as bad as they might have been. The Playfair campaign movement were ready to share the gains made with previous campaigns such as 2012. Trade union leaders from around the country met to discuss how they could ensure decent work in the in the preparations for Rio 2016. Shortly afterwards, unionised workers on the on the actual venues – the safest part of the operation – walked off the job in May last year, achieving an 8% pay rise: not an approach available to workers in Qatar.
Ultimately, it looks as though Rio 2016 has been poorly planned and that a lot of workers, not just those who have lost their lives, have suffered to rectify the mistakes of those in charge. At one point, the organisers seem to have half-heartedly attempted to blame the workers themselves for the problems. Sabotage was responsible for some of the problems experienced by athletes, they said. However, to their credit, not only did the Rio 16 team not bother to back up the lurid headlines, admitting readily that there was no evidence of coordination, but that most of the issues were due to “organizational problems,” describing a “wild scramble” to find 650 plumbers and electricians in the last few days.
Hopefully, despite everything, the Olympics themselves will be a success. It would be no consolation to the workers who have given their lives for these games if they are a failure, but global sport’s governing bodies, including the IOC and FIFA, really need to ensure that all ingredients are in place for safe and successful competitions. This includes proper planning at the top, consultation with all stakeholders, particularly trade unions, and the will and capacity from the host government to enforce workplace rights so that safety, reasonable hours and fair pay are the norm and that workers have the freedom to refuse to work if they’re not.
Massive construction projects are dangerous, but previous Games like those in Sydney and London show that with careful planning and cooperation with trade unions, big sporting occasions don’t have to come at the price of a big death toll.
As the opening ceremony unfolds, much of the scandal might be forgotten for a while, but the good lessons from London and the warnings from Rio will need to be dusted down again as soon as all eyes look to Tokyo 2020. The world owes those eleven workers no less.