State of denial

Two weeks ago the UEFA congress elected Alexey Sorokin onto FIFA’s governing council. His first statement was to deny the well documented use of North Korean slave labour to construct the stadiums for next year’s World Cup.

By Pål Ødegård

At the extraordinary UEFA congress in Geneva the 19th of September, Alexey Sorokin filled the last European spot on the FIFA Council. Running unopposed for one of the most powerful positions in world football, the 55 members of UEFA didn’t even bother to vote, and instead marked the event with a unanimous round of applause. On the subsequent press conference UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin stated that “all the members of UEFA wanted Sorokin as FIFA council member” and added that his election “was in the interest of UEFA.”

Alexey Sorokin, CEO of Russia World Cup 2018 local organizing committee, replaced Vitaly Mutko, who failed an eligibility check applying for the FIFA Council seat. Mutko, widely reported to have orchestrated a state-sponsored doping programme which also included professional football players, himself selected Sorokin to replace him as candidate.

One of Sorokin’s very first statements after being confirmed as FIFA Council member gave little doubt that the controversy surrounding Russia’s World Cup won’t go away after Mutko. Asked by Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet on the status of the issue about North Koreans being used to construct the stadiums for next year’s World Cup, Sorokin answered with a straight face:

“We’ve made our own investigations, and we found no proof that any North Koreans have worked on any of our stadiums. We looked for them, but we just couldn’t find anyone.”

Sorokin’s contradictory statement
The statement contradicts confirmation from FIFA itself that North Koreans not only were working on Zenit Arena in St Petersburg, but that they did so while in slave-like conditions.

In February, this magazine revealed that at least 110 North Koreans worked constructing the stadium in St Petersburg. A Russian construction worker on the stadium told Josimar this about the North Koreans working alongside him:

“They are like robots. All they do is work, work, work. They work from seven in the morning until midnight. Every single day. They are never off. They are very good workers, but they look unhappy. They have no life.”

Several human rights organizations describe North Koreans as modern-day slaves. They work from early morning to late at night, and have no days off. The entire time they are under 24-hour surveillance by security guards, have no rights, and as much as 80 per cent of their meagre salaries go directly to the North Korean regime. This money is often labelled ‘donations’, but are in reality one of the main sources of income for Kim Jung-Un’s regime, who are desperate for foreign currency as they are under severe economic sanctions. It is with this money that the country’s nuclear weapon programme is financed. It is telling of the conditions in North Korea that these workers pay bribes to get jobs abroad, and the state chooses middle aged men with a family who stay at home as a guarantee they won’t defect.

Russia is one of the main importers of North Korean migrant workers, and conservative estimates suggest 20,000-30,000 North Koreans work in Russia, where most of them are based in what are literally gulag lumber camps in Eastern Russia and Siberia. Other estimates go as high as 70,000.

For Russia, the cheap labour North Korea offers is perfect as the cost of constructing all the facilities for the upcoming World Cup has taken its toll during a period when oil prices have been low. Zenit Arena alone has cost more than 540 per cent of the initial budget, where much have been lost in corruption. Total spending on the World Cup have now exceeded 10 billion US dollars, according to The Economist. Russia, who actually contemplated using convicted criminals as cheap labour to help with stadium construction, have relied heavily on migrant workers, especially from Central Asia. Many of them report being paid late, irregularly, and not nearly as much as the original agreement. Many are afraid to complain in fear of losing their jobs. North Koreans are in some cases preferred, as they don’t complain.

Many bilateral agreements between North Korea and Russia came after Russia were awarded the World Cup. One made the visa procedures more streamlined  for groups of North Koreans to enter Russia. Another is an extradition agreement which makes it less likely for North Koreans to defect.

After Josimar’s report from St Petersburg, the German TV channel ARD revealed that North Koreans had also been used to construct the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow. Human Rights Watch also delivered a report after inspecting the 14 World Cup stadium construction sites. It was damning.

The Josimar report triggered the federation presidents of the Nordic countries to write a letter to FIFA president Gianni Infantino demanding an explanation. Was it true, and what was being done about it? Surprisingly, Infantino’s reply confirmed not only that North Korean workers indeed had been spotted during FIFA’s inspections, but also the appalling conditions they worked under.

“With regards to the situation of North Korean workers, FIFA is aware of and firmly condemns the often appalling labor conditions under which North Korean workers are employed in various countries around the world.”, Infantino stated in the letter.

Sorokin’s answer to Ekstra Bladet’s question regarding North Korean workers also contradicts a statement Josimar received from the media office of the local organizing committee (LOC) for 2018 World Cup.

“As far as we are aware there were only few workers from North Korea and they performed finishing works during a short period of time.“

The head of the LOC at the time was Alexey Sorokin.

The awareness of North Koreans working in St Petersburg in February had turned into “no proof that any North Koreans have worked on any of our stadiums” in September.

Ballistic missiles
Josimar’s revelations also prompted eight US senators to send a complaint to FIFA with a demand to act tough on both Russia and North Korea.

“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”, it stated, along with demands that North Korea to be banned as a FIFA member, and Russia stripped of hosting the World Cup if proven that the government knew about the Koreans workers.

It’s hard to believe the they weren’t aware. Even if Russia have signed an agreement in the United Nations’ security council to cut trade with North Korea, it has recently made bilateral agreements with Kim Jung-Un’s regime to expand imports of North Korean labour. Recent ballistic missile testing indicate that North Korea can threaten not only most of East Asia, but also US territory in Guam and Alaska. The recent rhetoric from US president Donald Trump towards North Korea have made several geopolitical experts claim that the threat of nuclear war is even greater now than the Cuban crisis in 1962.

UEFA and FIFA must assume their responsibility for contributing to that threat, as the income North Korea get from using its citizens to construct World Cup stadiums are used to pay for the nuclear missile program of Kim Jung-Un. FIFA president Gianni Infantino has done everything to please the Russians, and removed the chairman of FIFA’s governance committee, Miguel Maduro, when the latter didn’t let Vitaly Mutko pass an eligibility check to retain his seat on the FIFA council. UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin, chairman of FIFA’s committee for competitions, which includes next years’ World Cup, claimed he didn’t even know about the North Koreans at Zenit Arena before Infantino responded to the letter sent from the presidents of the Nordic federations. And the 55 members of UEFA ushered Russian influence back onto FIFA’s government with a warm applause.

Josimar sent UEFA some questions regarding Sorokin’s startling remarks that there were no North Korean workers at the stadiums which will be used for next year’s World Cup:

Newly elected FIFA council member Alexey Sorokin has denied that North Korean workers were at the construction site of Zenit Arena in St.Petersburg. This has been well documented by inspectors, and confirmed by FIFA president Gianni Infantino, but also by the local organizing committee, of which Sorokin has headed. Do you find it alarming that UEFA’s representative at FIFA’s most important committee lies about this? And which measures will you take over such statements?”

UEFA’s answered the following:
“UEFA have repeatedly stated that human rights must always be respected, also when it comes to the organisation of sport events. This is notably why we have introduced specific articles referring to the protection of human rights in the bidding requirements to host our competitions.”