Business & Politics

Olympic Dreams: The Cost of Labour Exploitation for the Worlds Biggest Sporting Events

Tokyo 2020 Candidacy poster

11th August 2020


The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games would have been happening this summer if it was not for the outbreak of Covid-19. These games, and many mega sporting events before them, have been plagued by human rights abuses of workers. What needs to be done in order to prevent this?

The Olympics and other mega sporting events are exciting events which generally bring people together. The Olympics in particular showcase the pinnacle of sports and athletes. Many watch these games with excitement and pride for the world’s best athletes. It is easy to forget that in order for these events to be held, infrastructure had to be built. It is also easy to forget that in the building of this infrastructure human rights abuses are prevalent. Labourers have been exploited. The building of some major infrastructure has led to deaths. 12 workers died in the construction works for the 2020 UEFA European Football Championship.

People in favour of these large sporting events often state that the preparation for the events leads to urban development and creates jobs. These jobs are generally in infrastructure and construction. Although job creation can be positive there are aspects of this job creation which make it particularly precarious. For example, in many circumstances the labourers are paid less than expected and often less than a minimum wage. In Brazil only 17% of the total workforce employed for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic sites received above Brazil’s minimum monthly wage.

The Tokyo Olympics have not escaped criticism. The Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) issued a report in 2019 which drew to light the labour conditions facing the construction workers who were working on infrastructure for Tokyo 2020. This report highlighted how low pay, overtime hours and poor access to grievance mechanisms created a “culture of fear”. This culture of fear helped allow human rights to be abused.

This came at a human cost. One worker committed suicide as a result of overtime hours worked. He had logged 190 hours of overtime the month prior to his death. He left a note stating “ This is the only answer I could come up with after my body and soul have reached their limits”. The government response to this was to enforce new rules in relation to overtime work. Although these rules are welcome they seem to be without any bite as they did not apply to the Tokyo construction period. Thus the response has been an ineffective one.

The human cost was also visible as there were two on-site fatalities of construction workers. There was a reported unsafe working environment with some workers even having to purchase their own safety equipment. The reason for this is most likely due to their legal status as self- employed workers, which means that their employers do not have to abide by general labour lawsThis legal status is being used to deny people their basic human rights.


“20 workers died in the construction works for the 2020 UEFA European Football Championship”

A system is needed to ensure health and safety at construction sites for workers. The London Olympic construction sites recorded zero fatalities. This was seen as a result of London’s Olympic Delivery Authority who embedded principles such as health, safety and security in the procurement process applied when selecting the contractors they worked with. Civil society organizations are also important as a check of safety conditions. These organizations should be allowed to inspect sights and make reports on what they find. Monitoring of these sites by third parties is invaluable and should always be allowed.

Improvements need to be made and the recommendations above should be followed in the future. Integrating health and safety in the procurement process seems to have been highly effective. This ensures that it is not only the main contractors but also the sub-contractors and people further down the complex supply chain who need to adhere to safety standards. This means that the commitment to health and safety will not just be empty promises but actually implemented by all parties.

Migrant workers are often used in the construction of these projects. In Athens, for the 2004 Olympic Games, about 60% of the construction workers were migrants. Although the Tokyo 2020 Sourcing Code contains provisions for suppliers to comply with international human rights and labour standards, there have been complaints about how migrant workers have been treated. Japan’s immigration system has traditionally been closed, but due to an ageing population and a rising demand for labour they have opened up more to migrant workers. Most of the construction workers have come through the Technical Intern Training Programme. However, interns have been recorded fleeing the jobs these programmes provide. Two-thirds of those that fled in 2017 were paid below minimum wage, and roughly 10% of workers on average work 80 hours or more overtime.

The jobs provided are also usually temporary jobs and are therefore unsustainable. In the London Olympics, positive results were gained by non-profit partnerships which supported the transition to sustainable work. This capacity building can be used by the workers in the future to develop hard and soft long-term skills. Thus a capacity building body should be included as a requirement in the bidding process and should cooperate with the organizations. This body would ensure that it is not only primary jobs which are created from the construction but also secondary jobs by training and providing skills to people.

Access to effective grievance mechanisms is a key aspect of preventing further human rights violations. Although grievance mechanisms had been set up for Tokyo 2020, the implementation was weak and there was a lack of information for the workers on these mechanisms, with many even not knowing they existed or how to use them. An effective grievance mechanism should be part of the Olympic Games bidding documentation. This would ensure that if rights are breached there is an avenue which people are aware of and is effective to deal with these breaches.

Mega sporting events are exciting events which have the potential to bring sustainable jobs to an economy if they are organized correctly. Improvements are needed in several aspects of the process in which these events are granted to certain countries. Tackling human rights concerns through the bidding process is one way of ensuring that the country in which this event will take place will take human rights seriously.




Featured photo by Danny Choo




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