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2014 George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award

February 19, 2014

Whether in times of political turmoil, armed conflict or prosperity and achievement, millions across the world unite in celebration of sport and patriotism as they cheer on their champions at the soccer World Cup or on the Olympic stage. While fans wave their nation’s flags in celebration, they often don’t know about the many cases of abuse and exploitation of migrant workers that occurred during the construction of the stadium where the events are played.  For migrants from Serbia in Sochi, Haitians in Brazil and Nepalese in Qatar, the games often result in extreme exploitation and even the loss of life.

To secure a bid to host global sporting events, countries often undercut workers’ rights, wages and health and safety protections. The AFL-CIO and the global labor movement recognize the need for greater protections for the migrant workers who build the buildings, produce the souvenirs and mementos and provide the services that make these events happen. All countries given the honor of hosting a world premier sporting event such as the Olympics and the World Cup must be held to the highest standards when it comes to supporting international labor rights. Governments, the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) and the International Olympic Committees a well as their contractors and suppliers must be held accountable for their actions. Migrant workers should be recognized as part of the team and their collective bargaining and labor rights respected.

Construction has a long tradition of exploiting migrant labor from lower wage countries. Migrant workers in this sector are too often subjected to a range of abuses, including threats, intimidation, wage theft, confiscation of travel documents, black listing, violence and even human trafficking and forced labor. Their migration is generally not driven by choice, but by poverty and a lack of decent work. To secure work, many workers must utilize international labor recruiters, who force them to pay high fees to obtain a visa, which can result in debt bondage as workers toil in an indentured state to repay high-interest loans. Many circular, or temporary, labor migration programs, too, severely restrict the ability of migrant workers to exercise their rights in destination countries.

The Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) and its affiliates are at the forefront of the campaign to bring justice to construction workers worldwide.  BWI puts global pressure on employers to ensure that all workers’ rights are guaranteed, especially during high-profile sporting events. In close coordination with the global labor movement, BWI exposes the egregious violations of migrant workers in a sector of the economy where workers are often trafficked and exploited under forced labor.   

BWI’s affiliates organize campaigns and establish agreements between unions in origin and destination countries, and ensure equal pay for equal work, regardless of workers’ country of origin, among other efforts.  Last October, BWI, along with Brazilian unions, the International Labor Organization and other members of civil society, helped launch the Pact for Decent Work in the 2014 World Cup.  Signatories agreed to prevent the use of forced and child labor and human trafficking, to ensure respect for labor rights under the ILO Conventions ratified by Brazil and to create initiatives to make work involved with the event become permanent employment.

The AFL-CIO recognizes and honors the different and yet pivotal roles played by the Building and Wood Workers’ International  and others in the global labor movement in their efforts to ensure decent work in international sporting events. LO Sweden and the Swedish Olympic Committee (SOK) recently signed a joint agreement on the Stockholm 2022 bid to ensure ethical working conditions for everyone working directly or indirectly with the Winter Olympics.

The AFL-CIO would like to present the 2014 George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award to Building and Wood Workers’ International for its efforts to address egregious workers’ rights violations in the construction industry, in both the high-profile sporting events that receive global attention and in local construction projects.  BWI is at the forefront of implementing innovative campaigns that expose the abuse of migrant workers in the construction industry and prove that with collective efforts international sporting events can be built on respect for human rights for all.

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