A test opening of St Petersburg’s Zenit Arena in February treated 10,000 spectators to car racing, motorcycle tricks, dancers and a performing bear introduced as “Russia’s greatest hero”. But the patriotic ceremony failed to note that the stadium, in which Russia kick off the Confederations Cup in a fortnight in preparation for next year’s World Cup, was built mostly by immigrant workers from Asia, including from one of the world’s most repressive countries, North Korea.
A subcontractor who asked to remain anonymous said at least 190 “downtrodden” North Koreans had worked long hours with no days off between August and November last year and that one, a 47-year-old, had died on site. “These guys are afraid to speak to people. They don’t look at anyone. They’re like prisoners of war,” the subcontractor said.
An employee of a North Korean state company that brings workers to Russia told the Observer at a St Petersburg construction site that the men often worked long hours and had to give part of their pay to the regime in Pyongyang to “facilitate the country’s defence”, which includes its nuclear weapons programme.