Human Trafficking and Forced Labor in the Context of the Olympics and Major Sporting Events

In this blog post, I want to discuss human trafficking, specifically labor trafficking, in the context of mega sporting events and especially the Olympics. International sporting events such as the Olympics and the World Cup require a lot construction of buildings and stadiums in relatively short amounts of time. For example, when a city hosts the Olympic Games, an entire village is created for spectators and athletes to enjoy their time there. These projects requires hours upon hours of work, and many workers. Because of the heightened need for workers in a short time frame, labor trafficking has become a major avenue for getting these workers. Unfortunately, this often gets overlooked by the focus on sex trafficking. We have heard countless stories and seen articles about how things like the Super Bowl and the Arnold Classic create a high demand for sex trafficking, and while this may be true, the reality is that labor trafficking is also highly prevalent in these types of situations and is most often not talked about. It is a problem that must no longer go on hiding underneath the attention of sex trafficking.

A primary example of this is that in the case of construction for the upcoming 2022 World Cup in Qatar, it is estimated that one Nepalese worker dies every two days during construction for the games. Some other examples of events where this large burst of labor trafficking has occurred are the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia and the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Six of the next eight mega-sporting events like these ones will be held be countries that are not a fully democracy. 1 Unfortunately, the labor trafficking has gone undiscovered for a long time because of underreporting and lack of responsibility to do anything about it when it is reported. This makes these places an even more desirable place to commit labor trafficking because it is likely without consequences.

As mentioned, labor trafficking was at one of its highs during construction for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Brazil. In one case in particular, eleven men were trafficked from other parts of Brazil to work on construction for the games and the village. They were not paid what they were promised, and they were all put into a tiny house filled with rats. Brazilian prosecutor Guadalupe Couto fortunately found them and got them out and sent them home. 2 But, there are many, many more situations like this that go uncaught and unheard of. For every one story like this of rescue, there have to be tens, twenties, fifties of stories of people who never make it out. What happens is that there is this high increase of jobs because so much construction needs to be done with a tight deadline, and unskilled workers in need of work and income take the jobs without doing research, which creates an extremely high risk of being trafficked.

Another story from Brazil is one of a woman named Carmen Lopes. Carmen was living in Bolivia when she was told about a job in São Paulo where she could make some money in the textile industry. She jumped on the opportunity and brought her son with her to Brazil. It was legal for her to work in Brazil, but there was a difficult language barrier. Once she got there, she worked four months without pay in terrible conditions. She was provided one person’s worth of food and shelter for her and her son combined. Her boss tried to make her son, 8-years-old, work in the kitchen, and that was Carmen’s breaking point. She escaped, but continued to work in similar, awful conditions for years. This story is an example of what is becoming so common in Brazil right now. 3 There are multiple bills in front of Congress in Brazil right now that would make it even more difficult to catch labor traffickers. They want to get rid of surprise labor inspections, which is how many trafficking situations are discovered. They also want to allow companies to outsource without being responsible for what happens later on down the line, such as abuse and harsh working conditions. If these bills are passes and enacted into law in Brazil, this situation will continue to drastically decrease and labor trafficking will go much more unchecked and will run rampant.

Here is the problem. We care so much about our precious sporting events and entertainment that we forgot about the extreme damage being done to people’s lives. In Brazil, those bills seeking to be passed only make it easier to construct these Olympic villages and World Cup buildings by avoiding any accountability for the actual workers themselves. They minimize costs at all lengths possible, to the points of just not paying the works at all and providing them with terrible living and working environments in order for them to gain maximum profit from these events.

There is very little to no substantiated research that shows the link between heightened sex trafficking with mega, international sporting events. This link is often exaggerated due to the media’s natural inclination to focus on the less favorable aspects of these events. There are actually some studies that even show, for example in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, that sex trafficking was down during this time surrounding the game. A large reason for this probably includes the major increase of high security surrounding the event. Because of this unreasonable and inaccurate focus on sex trafficking in regards to major sporting events, labor trafficking and the exploitation of these workers is put on the back-burner. Yet, it is the real issue that should be given the attention. When you look at the United States, for instance, 90% of the time when someone uses the term, “Human trafficking,” they are talking about sex trafficking, either because they think that it is solely what it means or they think it is the one happening the most, both of which come out of misrepresentation and lack of education on this issue. Because of this focus on sex trafficking only, labor trafficking is overlooked and exploited workers are often looked at as criminals, and because they are often foreigners, this creates a bigger distaste for immigration that is completely unfounded. 4

Looking particularly at the Olympic Games, I would like to explore what can be done to work towards preventing this extreme labor trafficking surrounding the events. The International Olympics Committee (IOC) gave the 2016 Olympic Games to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, even though Brazil is a major source of sex AND labor trafficking and is well known for its child sex tourism industry. Therefore, this sets the Games up for failure from the very beginning. The IOC must do a better job and be more mindful about where they choose to host the games. It would be extremely beneficial to host the Olympic Games in a city where trafficking is highly criminalized and discouraged, instead of somewhere where it is already a major problem. 5 Yet, that doesn’t seem to matter if they are able to make money and get attention of the media.

Not only does the Olympics create many avenues for labor trafficking due to the large influx of building and construction, but it also creates a way for trafficking victims to be transported from one country to another because they are being disguised as  visitors, and it provides an easier way for traffickers to move workers around. For example, during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, there was a lot of illegal migration happening because Ethiopian traffickers convinced workers of the great opportunities in South Africa as a way to get them there. 6

While countries are certainly trying to make steps to prevent labor trafficking in cities hosting these major sporting events, it is clear that not enough is being done, because it is still highly present and continues to get worse at each event. The IOC’s main consideration when deciding where to host the Olympic Games should be the country’s track record of human trafficking and what progression they have made away from it and the efforts they have taken to combat it. We must stop being so concerned with our precious money. The Olympics and the World Cup, and many other events like these, having become money-making machines and that has become the primary concern. They create villages full of things for visitors to see and experience and purchase, at the expense of workers who are paid nothing and treated horribly.

We must also put the focus on trafficking related to these events where it should be – on labor trafficking and exploitation of the workers. Sex trafficking is quite certainly real and worth our attention, but not at the expense of a much larger issue of labor trafficking. The IOC and other committees, as well as the governments of the countries hosting these events, must work to educate its population and visitors of where the major problem lies and how to prevent it, rather than shifting its focus to what is more eye-catching, like sex trafficking.





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