Migrant Workers: Behind the Scenes at the London Olympics

July 27, 2012
  • Lindsey Lim

    Former Associate, BSR

The 2012 Olympic Games are upon us. Before the spectators converged in London and before the athletes arrived to train, migrant workers came to build infrastructure, harvest food, and prepare hotel rooms. Migrant workers are essential to the success of international sporting events. People came from across China to work for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and from across Africa for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Now, migrant workers, particularly from Eastern Europe, have come to the U.K. for the 2012 London Olympics.

According to the London Olympic Delivery Authority, almost half of 46,000 Games-related jobs were given to foreign workers. More than 25 percent of the total workforce is from the European Union, mostly from Eastern Europe, and around 12 percent is from outside the European Union.

Migrant workers are an especially vulnerable labor group. Apart from excessive recruitment fees, inadequate housing conditions, language barriers, and discrimination, the scale and time pressure from a major sporting event greatly increases the risk of excessive working hours and unpaid time off and overtime.

Businesses are already feeling the consequences of a lack of labor oversight. One high profile case involves Crown Polishing and Plating, who gold plates the torches. The company is facing prosecution and a possible fine after nine Indian nationals were allegedly found working without proper documentation.

As far back as 2008, concerns were already being raised that London construction workers, of whom about 40 percent are from Central or Eastern Europe, are vulnerable to abusive recruitment agencies that require excessive working hours and offer low wages. The Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) was established to prevent the exploitation of food sector workers and requires that labor providers in certain industries be licensed. There are calls to extend the GLA’s coverage to the construction, hospitality, and domestic sectors, but this will not take place before the London Olympics. Meanwhile, there have been reports of labor providers, also known as gangmasters, paying construction workers less than the national minimum wage for work on projects related to the Olympics.

London’s hotels are also heavily reliant on migrant workers, who face similar risks as their counterparts in other industries. The Institute for Human Rights and Business and Anti-Slavery International launched the Staff Wanted Initiative to help identify practices that contribute to the exploitation of hospitality workers and to advocate for improved practices and risk mitigation. As part of the initiative, every hotel in the greater London area was sent a leaflet outlining steps to avoid exploitation of migrant workers.

What hotels, torch makers, and construction companies have in common is that they rely on recruitment agencies to fill their staffing needs. Businesses should establish ethical recruitment standards and take responsibility for their contractors’ employment practices towards migrant workers, which is no different from the onus put on electronics or garment manufacturers to ensure sound labor practices throughout their supply chains. Companies that sponsor the games, as well as sports fans and consumers, also have a role to play: They should insist that host cities and organizing committees ensure sound labor practices and fair treatment of migrant workers, without whom the Olympics would not be possible.

BSR's Migration Linkages initiative seeks to help protect the rights of migrant workers by connecting multinational companies and suppliers with civil society, international organizations, labor unions, and governments to build transparency around the global migration system and advance responsible business practices. Our upcoming research paper on Migrant Construction Workers and the Qatar 2022 World Cup will be available later in 2012.

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