Trouble on Russky Island

Building work for the prestigious APEC summit on Russky Island in the Far East is under threat – due to a series of bitter clashes between security staff and construction workers.

The island, where the facilities for APEC 2012 and the Far Eastern Federal University are being built, was the scene of violent clashes Sunday as some 500 migrant workers fought with security guards.

The contractor in charge of construction, billionaire Araz Agalarov’s Crocus Group, has blamed the clashes on Muslim workers bringing alcohol into the site on the occasion of Muslim holiday Eid al- Fitr, which marks the end of fasting for the holy month of Ramadan.

The company said that trouble started after workers attempted to break the ban on drinking on the island, fixed by the Primorye region government. A mass fight with police and security guards led to 10 people being injured on both sides, and one of the workers being hospitalized.

Trade unions representing the workers dispute this version of events, saying it was about poor pay and working conditions.

Yekaterina Chernenko, a spokeswoman for the local branch of Crocus Group, insisted the violence was the workers’ fault.

“The clash was incited by the workers, who were deprived of alcohol to celebrate the Muslim holiday, and it’s nothing to do with adverse poor working conditions,” she told The Moscow News.

Alexander Shershukov, an official with the formally pro-Kremlin Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia, doubted this story, however.

“It looks suspicious that the Muslim workers decided to celebrate the upcoming religious holiday with alcohol, which is forbidden by their religion. In my view it might have been spurred by the adverse working conditions on the island,” Shershukov said.

Shershukov said that construction sites in Sochi and Russky Island often see clashes and friction with migrant workers, and said that in the last year there have been at least six or seven flare-ups.

“There is a subtle scheme by the contractor and subcontractors. The employers sometimes feel free to deceive workers, delay salary payments, pay less or withdraw money in the form of fines or payment for uniforms,” said Shershukov of Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia.

At the Olympic and APEC summit work sites migrant workers fear they will lose their jobs if they complain, say union officials.

A year ago, some 250 Chinese workers were deported after protesting a delay in paying salaries.

On that occasion, subcontractor Monoblok delayed payment by 18 days, and workers claimed that only foremen, not ordinary workers got paid, union officials say.

The Vladivostok prosecutor’s office ordered the company to pay arrears to 249 workers, and later the workers left the island.

And in May 2011, some 250 Turkish workers mainly working on interior decoration, held a protest rally after only receiving half the wages they were promised. The Turkish workers said their passports were taken away from them, and bosses only agreed to return them after they signed a document saying they had no salary claims.

A total of 8,000 foreign workers are on the island, from China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey, and conflicts between various nationalities are common.

But even this was due to poor living and working conditions, some local officials say.

“The conflict happened not because a bottle of vodka,” said Nikolai Markovtsev, a deputy in the Vladivostok City Duma. “The workers on the island are kept in very poor conditions. They sleep in small rooms on bunk beds and have little to eat, so every minor reason may spur conflicts between the workers or with the contractors.”

Crocus Group rejects the workers’ and unions’ allegations, saying that as general contractor it is hard to control all the subcontractors working on the island.

“We have about 100 subcontractors and 20,000 workers on the site. It’s really hard to control the working conditions and the honesty of subcontractors. Very often, dissatisfied workers can’t reach us with their complaints,” said Chernenko, of Crocus Group.

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