MOSCOW – Russian authorities want to use prison labor to drive down the costs of holding the 2018 World Cup.
The Russian prison service is backing a bid by Alexander Khinshtein, a lawmaker from the ruling United Russia party, to allow prisoners to be taken from their camps to work at factories, with a focus on driving down the costs of building materials for World Cup projects.
"It'll help in the sense that there will be the opportunity to acquire building materials for a lower price, lower than there is currently on the market," Khinshtein told The Associated Press. "And apart from that it'll make it possible to get prisoners into work, which is very positive."
Russian prison labor schemes have faced allegations that prisoners are routinely underpaid or forced to work long hours. In 2013, the then-imprisoned Pussy Riot band member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova went on hunger strike in protest at working conditions in her prison camp.
Russia's Federal Penitentiary Service has been working with Khinshtein to draw up the proposals, said the lawmaker, adding that they will be submitted to parliament soon.
The service declined to comment on the plan when contacted by the AP on Monday, but deputy director Alexander Rudy told the Kommersant business newspaper that his agency was keen to use prisoners for "tasks that, let's say, wouldn't appeal to the ordinary citizen."
Workers' rights are a hot-button issue for World Cup organizer FIFA, which is under pressure over the high rate of deaths among migrant workers in 2022 host nation Qatar.
Russia's move toward prison labor comes at a time when the World Cup budget of 637.6 billion rubles ($12.7 billion) is under pressure after the ruble dropped in value compared to last year, making imported materials more expensive. The ruble has recovered much of its lost value this year, but is still worth around a third less against the dollar than at the start of 2014, before international sanctions and a drop in the price of oil dented the Russian economy.
Khinshtein said his plan to employ prisoners was "of course" an extension of the government's policy of so-called import replacement, under which Russian-made production is expanded to fill the gap left by costly imports.
The workers would continue to live in their prison camps and would be transported to their place of work each day. A typical wage for a prisoner on such projects might be 15,000 rubles ($300) a month, Khinshtein said.
There are no plans as yet to employ prisoners on World Cup stadium construction sites, he added.