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Senators to FIFA: Pull World Cup from Russia if North Korean Slave Labor Used to Build Stadiums

Workers build the soccer stadium on Krestovsky Island in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Oct. 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of senators is urging FIFA to rescind Russia’s host status for the 2018 World Cup if reports that North Korean slave labor is being used to build stadiums turn out to be true.

Josimar, a Norwegian soccer magazine, published in March an investigative report revealing that at least 110 North Koreans have worked at the Zenit Arena in St. Petersburg, with one worker found dead from a heart attack in a storage container outside the stadium — where the workers, who labored from 7 a.m. until midnight, lived behind barbed-wire fences. Their passports were confiscated and the majority of their pay was seized.

A subcontractor who asked to remain anonymous told The Guardian that at least 190 “downtrodden” North Koreans had worked long hours with no days off between August and November last year at the St. Petersburg site. “These guys are afraid to speak to people. They don’t look at anyone. They’re like prisoners of war,” the subcontractor said. The workers’ seized pay reportedly went back to Kim Jong-un’s regime to fund his weapons programs.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino admitted in a May letter to concerned Scandinavian countries that he was “aware of and firmly condemns the often appalling labour conditions under which North Korean workers are employed in various countries around the world” and did find “strong evidence for the presence of North Korean workers on the construction site in St Petersburg” in November. “The issues found were subsequently raised with the respective company and with the general contractor,” Infantino wrote.

FIFA told Human Rights Watch that as of December 2016 the organization found no North Korean workers at the St. Petersburg stadium site or other sites. “It is not clear where the workers previously employed on the stadium are, what specific remedies, if any, were taken by FIFA, the Russian government or the contractor to address the allegations of abuse,” Human Rights Watch said in a June report on the exploitation of workers that found “FIFA’s existing labor monitoring system may not be effective.”

This week, Sens. Bob Menendez D-N.J.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), David Perdue (R-Ga.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn) sent a letter to Infantino first blasting the organization’s decision to award the World Cup to “a country that so blatantly disregards international norms” like Russia.

The senators asked for an investigation and, if Russia is found complicit in using North Korean forced labor, that FIFA yank the soccer tournament from Russian soil.

“As an organization with the capacity to affect the lives of billions of fans, athletes, and workers around the world, FIFA must live up to its commitments on human rights. Protecting workers and athletes from forced labor must be a key element of those commitments. If FIFA fails to take action against Russia and North Korea, it will be perceived as tolerating these countries’ heinous practices,” the senators wrote. “The world’s premier sporting event must not be built on the backs of the world’s most vulnerable people.”

The lawmakers also called on FIFA to kick North Korea out the organization amid reports that Kim’s regime has abused its soccer players and possibly sent them to prison camps. “A government that is one of the world’s foremost human rights violators should not be allowed to reap international legitimacy, and to financially benefit, from the world’s most popular sport,” they added.