The 17 deaths at World Cup construction sites were documented by Building and Wood Workers’ International, a global trade union based in Switzerland.
At least 70 workers died during construction for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia; 13 before the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro; six before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing; and zero during the building of the Olympic Park at the 2012 Olympics in London, according to trade union officials and news accounts.
Ambet Yuson, the general secretary of the trade union, said Tuesday that it was concerned the death toll in Russia would rise as laborers work from increasing heights and rush to complete construction ahead of the World Cup.
“It should be a wake-up call,” Mr. Yuson said in a telephone interview from Geneva. “They are coming from the experience in Sochi. They should learn from that. If you go back to Sochi, most of the accidents and fatalities happened toward the end of construction. They should know better by this time.”
Mr. Yuson urged FIFA to use its leverage to put pressure on the Russian government so that construction companies “take this seriously.”
Officials for the local organizing committee for the 2018 World Cup did not immediately respond to questions about the report. FIFA said in a statement Tuesday that it shared Human Rights Watch’s objective to “ensure decent working conditions” at World Cup stadiums, but said that it disagreed with the rights group’s “overall message of exploitation on the construction sites.”
FIFA’s program to monitor worker safety at the Russian stadiums, which began in April 2016, “is going beyond what any sports federation has done to date to identify and address issues related to human and labor rights,” the statement said.
Through 58 stadium inspections, issues involving workers’ rights have declined by 72 percent, the statement said, providing “clear evidence that the monitoring system is helping to improve labor standards.”
But the statement gave no details about what kind of labor violations were found, how many workers were affected and how improprieties were corrected. This absence of transparency has been a persistent problem with FIFA, said Ms. Buchanan, the author of the Human Rights Watch report.
“It’s really hard for anyone to evaluate how effective this program is,” she said. “We’re just expected to take their word for it.”
FIFA complained in its statement that Human Rights Watch had not shared its research until recently. The rights group said much of the information about Russian labor problems had been public knowledge for nearly a decade.
The Human Rights Watch report said it had documented workers at six stadium sites who were not provided with employment contracts, as required by law. Some were not paid at all, received partial pay or had to wait months to receive their wages. Some were forced to work in temperatures as low as 13 degrees below zero Fahrenheit without sufficient protections against the cold.
Workers told researchers that some were prevented by private security guards from expressing their concerns about labor conditions or feared reprisals from employers if they spoke up, the report said. Workers at four stadiums organized strikes to protest labor practices, according to the report.
Human Rights Watch visited seven World Cup stadium sites in 2016 and 2017 and interviewed 42 Russian and migrant workers. Its ability to document labor conditions more comprehensively was hindered, the report said, by an atmosphere of “intimidation, suspicion and secrecy.”
On April 16, one of its researchers was detained for three hours at a police station in Volgograd, Human Rights Watch said. It has since halted its research out of security concerns.
The most widely publicized cases of harsh labor practices have involved North Korean laborers helping to build the World Cup stadium in St. Petersburg.
According to recent news accounts published in Josimar, a Norwegian soccer magazine, and The Guardian of London, North Korean workers endured conditions likened to forced labor by some human rights activists: extended hours, little time off or pay and brutal living conditions. At least one North Korean worker was said to have died.
In a letter to Human Rights Watch, dated June 8, FIFA said its monitoring system indicated that North Koreans no longer worked at any of the Russian World Cup stadiums. Left unsaid by FIFA, and what remains unknown according to Human Rights Watch and the trade union, is what happened to these workers.
“It doesn’t take much to imagine it could have gone very badly for them,” Ms. Buchanan said. “Was there any kind of remedy for these workers? Did they get any kind of compensation for their suffering? Was there any special protection afforded to them? It’s really troubling.”
Ms. Buchanan added, “The feeling is that FIFA washes its hands of this by saying, ‘We’re working really hard to make sure there aren’t any more of those workers.’”