22 February 2020 19:19

 Open Letter to IOC on Tokyo 2020

20 November 2019

Geneva, Switzerland

Mr. Thomas Bach


International Olympic Committee

Route de Vidy 9

1007 Lausanne


Open letter on violations of the human rights of construction workers in Tokyo 2020

Dear President Bach, 

We are writing about serious occupational health and safety violations resulting in accidents and fatalities, dangerous patterns of overwork, inadequate facilities for migrants and women workers, poor or non-existent industrial relations practices and other violations of human rights or indecent conditions of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. Major, repeated violations of worker rights on site, but also in the timber supply chain. 

BWI acted early and vigorously. However, our attempts to achieve justice for complainants have been consistently rebuffed by the three implementing agencies – Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (TOGOC), the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) and the Japan Sports Council (JSC).

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights 

The Guiding Principles were a “game changer” on corporate responsibility. Before, corporate responsibility was too often a display of virtue for the galleries. To the extent that there was a discussion of risks, it was a question of risks to shareholders, not to rights holders. The Guiding Principles have lifted corporate responsibility expectations  to the respect of universal human rights standards.

At first, some businesses just re-packaged what they were already doing and called it support for the Guiding Principles. However, they retained their own definitions of corporate responsibility.

The IOC captured the meaning of the Guiding Principles when you said that the IOC “ “should prevent and address any negative impacts on people connected to their operations, including where states fail to meet their own duty to protect human rights.” It makes sense, as you have also done, to integrate the Guiding Principles in relations with your staff, sub-contractors, suppliers and other business partners as well as including them in contractual arrangements. Over the long-term, that will be both effective and efficient. 

However, the perfect should never be the enemy of the good. We have been working with the UN Guiding Principles since their inception. While it is true that putting into place due diligence, remedy, and other systems takes time. the violations in Japan have been so egregious and so obvious that reading the Guiding Principles would be enough to be able to notice that there were serious dangers to worker rights, including occupational safety and health. It was also clear, from the beginning, that the situation was urgent. 

Advanced systems were not needed to see that sub-contractors were killing workers on the job through overwork and that local organisers were doing absolutely nothing.  Well-developed mechanisms and highly trained personnel were not needed to see that all responsibility for worker rights and conditions were abdicated by your local organisers. 

Without the full implementation of the GPs, the alarm bells should have been ringing and should have been heard, not just in Japan, but in Switzerland. Workers and their rights were treated with contempt. And, to repeat, under the Guiding Principles, the ultimate responsibility for negative impacts on human rights rests with the IOC.

We are writing this “Open Letter” to ask for your immediate intervention in the preparations for the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics to prevent future worker rights violations and ensure safety and health at Tokyo 2020 sites as well as looking to future events.  To those ends, we reference the Guiding Principles. It is in that framework that we provide the information and experience that we have gathered on the ground in Japan.

The Organising Committees for the Olympic Games (OCOGs) In a section explaining the contract obligations for the 2024 Games, you speak of that early step as being part of “a process that also integrated the requirements from the IOC Sustainability Strategy that apply to the OCOGs, host cities and their delivery partners.” 

On a number of occasions, we have tried to constructively engage the Tokyo 2020 organizers, TOCOG, TMG, and JSC directly, so that we could work together to address and resolve worker rights problems on the job. We held up, as a positive model for the  Tokyo  2020, our cooperation on occupational health and safety and worker grievances with Qatar for the FIFA 2022 World Cup Tournaments.  One would not think that it would have been necessary in Japan; a long-standing democracy with rule of law and protections of trade union and other worker rights.

Occupational Safety and Health

Construction is a hazardous industry, but that does not mean that the cost of Olympic Games must be paid in human lives. The fatalities, the accidents, and the health risks that we documented were avoidable. 

The IOC pledged that occupational health and safety were an essential priority well before the Sustainability Report and the Tokyo Games. That area should, therefore, have been already in place well before your sustainability policies were integrated into the Guiding Principles framework. 

Practices on site in Japan do not seem to conform with those policies. Are preventable deaths and accidents and grave health problems like heat stress and overwork in line with your policies? Should we take the refusal of Tokyo 2020 organizers and associated bodies to take their responsibilities for sub-contractors, workers supplied by private employment agencies, or self-employed, real or bogus as a form of implementation of IOC policies? Are our offers to cooperate on health and safety and complaints, repeatedly made to organisers and repeatedly rebuffed or ignored, also rejections by the IOC? 

BWI documentation and reports

Despite barriers imposed by your local organisers in Tokyo, contractors and others, BWI and one of its member organisations in Japan,  Zenkensoren,  made extensive efforts to interview workers and report on results. Part of the purpose of this exhaustive, difficult work  was to try to open the door to cooperation with your national sports authorities. That door never budged. Our repeated offers to work with them on joint inspections as well as dealing with specific complaints have been constantly and consistently rebuffed.

The first such report, based on information gathered in 2019, is “The Dark Side of The Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics.” The follow-up report, triggered by another death due to extreme hot working environment is entitled “No more deaths in Tokyo 2020.”  It was greeted by local Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic authorities with indifference on the basis that Grievance Mechanisms are already in place to handle complaints.  

We believe the system for achieving worker justice on Tokyo 2020 projects is fundamentally flawed. TOCOG, TMG and JSC  each established their own grievance mechanisms after much of the construction work had already been completed.

Complaints that were filed by Zenkensoren on behalf of workers were spurned out of hand, while complaints filed by the BWI were ruled out or disregarded for a range of other unsatisfactory reasons. As it stands, these mechanisms have proven totally inadequate.  These Grievance Mechanisms are totally ineffective as evidenced by the fact that not a single complaint has been resolved.  

Despite clear information to the contrary, the Tokyo 2020 organizers are adamant that their grievance mechanisms were the only effective tool to address workers’ complaints.  They have steadfastly refused to even consider alternative solutions to resolve what has been documented to date.

Three workers have died during the construction process and, as the pressure rises to complete venues on time, we are concerned there could be more.  Despite a nationwide construction worker shortage, worker wages have barely moved. Not a single collective agreement has been negotiated. Venues have been built using tropical rainforest timber from companies with a documented history of indigenous and worker rights violations that are not in line with the Guiding Principles nor with the principles of the Sustainable Sourcing Code on Timber. 

Given all of our efforts to cooperate with local organisers, we must conclude that they have no intention of respecting international labour standards. What does that mean for the IOC?

With only 250 days to go until the Tokyo 2020 begins, we still have not given up. The BWI seeks your urgent intervention. 

Although, we appreciate the recent IOC decision, in light of the tragic death of a construction worker from heat stroke, to compel TOCOG to shift the location of the Olympic marathon to avoid sweltering heat, that is not enough. For a long time now, the IOC has failed construction workers and their international obligations. The contributions of those workers are essential to the success of the Games.  

For construction workers on site, their treatment is no better “real world” proof that “justice delayed is justice denied”. There is no excuse for ignoring the serious problems that we have raised, even at the last stages of construction. There must be a way to put a rapid mechanism in place  to review and resolve any outstanding issues related to working and employment violations from Tokyo 2020.  If that does not happen, the IOC cannot see that as somebody else’s problem or responsibility. 

We strongly urge you to act, as the Supreme Authority of the Olympic Games on behalf of the construction workers who have worked so hard, too hard, to build Tokyo 2020 infrastructure. There will continue to be imminent risks of death for construction workers. They may even increase with growing pressure to complete sites despite a serious shortage of workers as well as the effects of a sustained record of negligence.  

We want to stress that IOC has an obligation as the Supreme Authority of the Olympic Movement to intervene and directly address human rights abuses when local organizing committees fail to do so. 

The Tokyo failure is sad and tragic. We must learn from this experience if human rights of workers and all others are to be respected in the preparation of future games and become part of their legacy. Tokyo 2020 is another reminder of IOC’s inability to fully address its due diligence and use of leverage to ensure decent work, safety working conditions, and justice for all workers including migrant workers who are building the facilities to continue the Olympic spirit.  The workers, athletes, sports fans, and the public expect the IOC to do the right thing by acting now.

Thank you for your consideration.

Yours sincerely,  

Ambet Yuson                                           Dietmar Schaefers

BWI General Secretary                              BWI Deputy President