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Deported Serb Workers Tell Horror Stories Of Sochi Olympic Construction Work

Thousands of migrant workers have traveled to Sochi for work.
Thousands of migrant workers have traveled to Sochi for work.
BELGRADE/SARAJEVO -- Apparently, the much-touted "Slavic brotherhood" between Russians and Serbs doesn't extend to migrant workers.

More than 100 ethnic Serbs from Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina have been returned to their home countries after being detained as illegal workers in the southern Russian city of Sochi. Others fled Russia following raids on their work site.

Twenty-one-year-old Milan Jeftic from the Serbian village of Loznica described his ordeal in an interview with RFE/RL's Balkans Service: "For the last three days we were running away from the police in order not to be arrested. We were hiding in back streets, in cafes. Somehow we managed to find a construction site to go to."

Jeftic left Loznica three months ago after an employment agency arranged for him a job as a plasterer for a wage of 9 euros per square meter. Although he estimates that he earned 4,500 euros ($6155) during that time, he was paid only 700 -- and then he had to flee the work site after agents of Russia's Federal Migration Service swooped in and detained more than 30 other workers.


Among them was Miomir Stolica, from the Bosnian town of Bileca, who told a similar story.

"I went to Russia two months ago -- not by myself, but with a lot of people from Bosnia and Serbia. We were deceived. We worked there on some construction site and we were not paid -- but that's not so important," Stolica says.

"The important thing is that when we got back to our homes five or six days ago, we were arrested. First we were in detention and then in prison. We appealed to the Bosnian embassy, but they were unable to do anything for us. Then the Serbian embassy helped us."

In Focus: Security Concerns Mount As Olympic Opening Nears

Stories of migrant workers being deported from Russia -- or fleeing in fear -- and not being paid for their labor are becoming increasingly commonplace in the runup to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, which kick off on February 7.

The workers had their passports confiscated (file photo).
The workers had their passports confiscated (file photo).
Russian firms have used thousands of migrant workers -- many from Central Asia -- to build the vast new infrastructure for the February 7-23 Olympic Games in Sochi. The New York-based NGO Human Rights Watch earlier this month issued a report on human rights abuses in the preparations for the Games, including the mistreatment of migrant workers.

Tanya Lokshina, HRW's Russia program director, says the abuses reflect Jeftic's and Stolic's experiences -- including arbitrary detentions and expulsion from Russia without due compensation.

The Serbian government arranged an emergency flight for the 123 men who had been working construction jobs in Russia in preparation for next month's Winter Olympic Games.

Mladen Cicovic, who is head of the representative office of Bosnia's Republika Srpska in Belgrade, says on January 22 that some of the men left Belgrade immediately and some stayed one night before returning home.

"We accommodated the group in the Slavija Hotel. That was coordinated with the Serbian government. This morning we provided them sandwiches and tickets. Some of them went to Visegrad, and some to Banja Luka. We had one man who went to Bratunac."

Passports Confiscated

Jeftic, the Serbian migrant who fled, says the living conditions in Sochi were Spartan, at best, in unfurnished housing without heat or running water.

He says the workers crossed the border into the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia, which Russia recognizes as an independent country, once a month to have their stays in Russia extended, although they did not have work permits.

"The first and second time [we were taken to Abkhazia], they returned our passports, but the third time they took them and did not return them. I don't know who it was who took us there -- whether they were Russians or Ukrainians, I have no idea. We endured it," Jeftic says.

"We worked from seven in the morning until late in the evening, until it got dark. When anyone asked for their salary, they were told 'there's no money.'"

Sasa Simic, president of Serbia's Independence construction workers union, says there may be as many as 40,000 Serbs working in Russia, although how many are in Sochi is unknown. He says there is little government control of the shady employment companies that recruit workers and send them to Russia, where their passports are often confiscated by their employers.

"I think it is all about corruption, negligence, and laziness. I urge the government to initiate criminal charges against those who are illegally taking away passports. No one has the right to do that. It is virtually human trafficking and forced labor," Simic said.

On January 23, Serbian officials arrested Dusan Kukic, the 59-year-old owner of an unlicensed recruiting firm in the Serbian city of Cacak, who was allegedly responsible for sending some of the returned Serbian workers to Sochi.

Simic, however, expects the problems to continue as Russia prepares even more infrastructure projects in connection with the 2018 soccer World Cup: "They will again build huge buildings and they count on our workers, who are the cheapest and most professional."

Miomir Stolica, the construction worker from the Bosnian town of Bileca, says he and his fellow workers were merely seeking economic opportunities that he says in Republika Srpska are only open to people with connections to the ruling Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) political party of President Milorad Dodik.

"What made me go to Sochi? I am married, you see. I have a small child. I cannot find a job in Bosnia. I am not a member of the SNSD. I just don't know," Stolica says.

RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this report

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