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Human Rights

World Cup workers struggle for basic rights

As many enjoy the World Cup games in Sao Paolo, most remain oblivious to the abusive working conditions of labourers.

Last updated: 03 Jul 2014 10:52
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Many labourers migrated from rural areas to Sao Paolo looking for work and financial opportunity [Getty Images]

As hundreds of thousands of football fans enjoy the beautiful games in Sao Paulo, many rural migrants drawn to Brazil’s commercial capital to build stadiums and other infrastructure projects say their lives have been anything but pretty in the lead-up to the mega-event.

In fact, many labourers who worked on construction projects ahead of the World Cup say they experienced rights abuses, including long hours and dangerous conditions.

Flavio, who hails from the Alagoas region in northeastern Brazil and didn’t want his real name published, said weeks of carrying 50kg bags of concrete and working at heights of 50 meters was too much for some workers.

"Some people lost their job when they could not manage [the] lack of sufficient rest," he told Al Jazeera.

The construction workers are among the poorest in Brazil and are often not aware of their rights. And the world soccer body FIFA has never shown any concern about the workers.

Antonio de Souza Ramalho, president of the Sintracon-SP civil construction workers union of Sao Paulo

Many analysts had worried that Sao Paulo's main Itaquerao stadium would not be finished before the World Cup began. After working around the clock, workers managed to have the facility ready for opening kick-off, unions and human rights groups said the rush came with a human cost. Due partially to construction delays, many labourers were working 12 hour shifts and giving up holidays to get the stadiums ready, angering trade unions.  

"Working 84 hours a week is a clear violation of labour laws. It is clearly not acceptable, " Jin Sook Lee, a representatives from the Building and Woodworkers International (BWI) said. BWI affiliates representing workers at World Cup construction sites in Brazil have been demanding decent working conditions and a wage increase of 10 percent.

Demanding labourers work 12-hour shifts without holiday is prohibited under Brazilian laws, Sook said adding that "companies must stop this practice".

Loss of life

Adriano, a construction worker from Sao Paulo who didn’t want his real name published, worked 12-hour shifts on stadium projects, pointed to an area off to the side of the Itaquerao stadium. "It was here the last worker fell to his death in March this year," he said.

A total of nine men lost their lives during construction at World Cup stadiums in Brazil, including at least three workers at building sites in Sao Paulo.

"We do not accept that the World Cup claims lives," Antonio de Souza Ramalho, president of the Sintracon-SP civil construction workers union of Sao Paulo, said.

FIFA, the global body responsible for organising the World Cup, declined to comment on the working conditions at stadiums in Brazil.

Civil construction is the industry that generates the most jobs in Brazil with 3.12 million new jobs in 2013 - but it is also the area where the number of work-related accidents is growing the most. There was 12 percent increase the last years - in 2010 and 55,000 work-related accidents were reported compared to 62,000 in 2012 according to the Brazilian Labour Ministry.

In Sao Paulo, the number of workplace accidents in the construction industry rose from 1,386 in 2012 to 7,133 in 2013, according to statistics compiled by Sintracon-SP.

"The construction workers are among the poorest in Brazil and are often not aware of their rights. And the world soccer body FIFA has never shown any concern about the workers", Antônio de Souza Ramalho said.

Human rights activists say many of the large construction firms involved in World Cup projects, including Odebrecht which had major contracts for the Sao Paulo stadium, donate heavily to political campaigns, so elected officials are weary of criticising their records on labour rights.

World Cups around the world draw attention to the plight of workers. Two workers died during construction for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Sochi in Russia, host of the 2018 World Cup, has had 60 deaths due to construction done for that event. A Guardian investigation in September last year reported year thousands of migrant laborers endure appalling in Qatar's preparations to host the 2022 World Cup.

In addition to alleged abuses faced by construction workers in Sao Paulo, Amnesty International criticised: "The total disregard for human rights in evictions in Rio de Janeiro to make way for construction works for the World Cup." 

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Al Jazeera
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