MOSCOW — Behind the veneer of Russia’s smooth-running World Cup are legions of migrant workers from Central Asia, who built the stadiums and keep them running, staff concession stands, and clean up after fans who revel through city streets.
They are among millions of migrants who perform menial jobs across Russia, and face routine police harassment and ethnic profiling. They are accused of depressing wages and plotting terrorism, yet unlike in Europe or the U.S., no one talks of building a border wall to keep them out. That’s because they form a pillar of the economy and aid Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical strategy — and without them, Russia might not have managed to host a World Cup at all.
As world-class soccer unfolds in their midst, orange-vested migrant workers take selfies with fans and steal glimpses of a match on a co-worker’s cell phone, or watch replays on a dormitory TV after a 12-hour shift. You won’t hear them complain.
“This country took us in, and gives us work,” said Bobur Ulashov, who left his village in southern Uzbekistan five years ago in search of a job. Today, the 37-year-old sweeps rubbish into his dented mental dustpan and plucks beer cups out of bushes at Moscow’s official World Cup fan zone.
He has little interaction with the visiting crowds — “they see the orange vest and keep walking,” he shrugs. He doesn’t hesitate when asked who he’s rooting for. “Russia. Who else?”
Russia provides work to people like Ulashov, who sends $100-200 home every month to his 6-year-old son, wife, parents and siblings. And people like Ulashov provided Russia cheap labor to prepare for the World Cup.
“Migrants made up the main workforce” in the construction of stadiums and transport infrastructure for the tournament, said Valery Solovei, a professor at Moscow’s MGIMO foreign policy institute and an expert on immigration and nationalism. “Without migrant workers, Russia couldn’t have built all these things so quickly.”
Despite promises by soccer’s governing body FIFA, the work wasn’t always safe, or humane.
Building Workers International says 21 people died on World Cup construction sites. Human Rights Watch documented hundreds of complaints from World Cup workers, finding that many had no written contract of any kind, and some were working in temperatures of minus 25 degrees Celsius (minus 13 Fahrenheit) with one indoor break in a nine-hour shift.
“Abuses included non-payment of wages, significant delays in paying wages, very unsafe working conditions in some sites, and also retaliation against workers who complained,” said Yulia Gorbunova of the group’s Moscow office.
Russia’s World Cup organizing committee says it worked with FIFA on an inspection system to root out alleged labor violations, and FIFA said last year that it had seen a sharp fall in the “number of issues” at Russian construction sites after its inspections. Neither the Russian organizers nor FIFA provided figures or details on what they found, or said whether anyone was prosecuted.
That’s a concern for Russia’s workers and for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar , where migrant workers perform nearly all menial labor and have few legal rights.
Migrants staffing Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow’s 81,000-seat primary venue, insist their conditions are good – 30,000 rubles ($470) a month during the tournament, with one or two days off per week. But most didn’t want their full names published for fear their employers would punish them.
Gafirjon Kurbonov isn’t afraid to talk. He helped lay asphalt in St. Petersburg as Russian cities cleaned up ahead of the World Cup, and now works as a registered taxi driver in Moscow. His wife and two small children have joined him, and he wants to settle here.
“Business is good. There are so many foreign (fans),” he said in rapid-fire, Tajik-accented Russian. And after the World Cup is over? “There will always be work.”
Even harder than obtaining working papers and a fair salary is battling discrimination. Security officers guarding the metro system systematically single out Central Asians to check their bags and documents, ignoring those with more Slavic features.
Russian authorities have said identity and bag checks are part of overall security necessary to protect the country.
When Russia sank into recession because of Western sanctions over the annexation of Crimea, Central Asians took blame for pushing down wages, inciting terrorism and petty crime.
After a Kyrgyz taxi driver plowed into pedestrians near Red Square early in the World Cup, social networks buzzed with abusive comments about “guest workers” who turn to terrorism — even though Russian authorities insisted it was just an accident by a sleep-deprived driver.
Central Asian migrant workers have been linked in the past to Islamic extremism, however. “Since they are feeling social pressure, they radicalize,” Solovei said. Discrimination “spawns a feeling of protest.”
Yet when nationalist politicians campaign to impose visas on Central Asians, government officials balk, fearing that would cost Russia its influence in the strategic region. And the debate quickly dies down.
Russia has proportionately more migrant workers than any country in Europe, Solovei said — some 6 million according to official statistics, 10 or 11 million according to unofficial estimates. Most come from the former Soviet republics of Central Asia — ancient Silk Road towns of Uzbekistan, impoverished valleys of Tajikistan on the Afghan border.
Some settle in Russia and become a part of the fabric of multi-ethnic cities like Moscow. Others remain guest workers for the long term, returning home every year for weeks or months at a time — and supplying remittances that make up a substantial chunk of Central Asia’s national budgets.
A Kyrgyz street sweeper named Gulnara showed off cell phone pictures of her young adult children back home, whom she hopes to see this summer. That helps her face the challenge of cleaning the mess left by soccer fans on historical streets near Red Square.
At the St. Petersburg stadium, a maintenance worker waited shyly in a corridor as fans poured out of the first-round match between Russia and Egypt. Seeing the jubilant Russian faces, he guessed that the home team had won, but had to ask a passerby the score.
Fixing tiles just about 10 meters from the stands, he had no idea what had transpired inside.