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The Fifa president, Gianni Infantino, has admitted there have been human rights abuses of workers involved in the construction of the arena in St Petersburg due to host matches in next year’s World Cup. In a letter to the presidents of four Nordic football associations, which the Guardian has seen, Infantino also acknowledged that some men from North Korea, whose working conditions are “often appalling”, were deployed to work at the Zenit Arena in St Petersburg.

The presidents of the Swedish, Danish, Norwegian and Icelandic FAs wrote to Infantino raising their concerns last week, following in-depth reportage by the Norwegian football magazine Josimar, which highlighted dreadful working conditions at the St Petersburg site. The article alleged that accommodation for the North Korean and other workers was in crowded storage containers outside the stadium, and cited local reports that a North Korean man was found dead in one of the storage containers, having suffered a heart attack.

The conditions of North Korean workers in Russia, China and the Middle East, effectively sent abroad by their country’s totalitarian regime in return for commission, was described as “exploitation” and “slave-like” in a resolution of the United Nations in November. The Josimar report interviewed migrant workers from other countries who said they had worked long hours in dismal conditions at the Zenit Arena and been underpaid, in cash.

In his letter to the four FA presidents dated Monday 22 May, Infantino said: “Fifa is aware of and firmly condemns the often appalling labour conditions under which North Korean workers are employed in various countries around the world.”

He acknowledged that an inspection team for Fifa’s “Decent Work Monitoring System”, set up to address concerns about human rights abuses, did find “strong evidence for the presence of North Korean workers on the construction site in St Petersburg” on a visit in November. “The issues found were subsequently raised with the respective company and with the general contractor,” Infantino wrote.

A further inspection carried out in March found no more North Korean workers employed at the site, he said.

The monitoring system, which Infantino said has since been strengthened, is run jointly by Fifa and the committee in Russia organising the World Cup, whose chairman is Vitaly Mutko, the country’s deputy prime minister. Infantino acknowledged in his letter there had been “incompliances” relating to health and safety – five workers have reportedly died in accidents – timely payment of salaries and accommodation at the site.

“As a consequence of the relatively high number of incompliances compared with the other Fifa World Cup stadiums found in St Petersburg and due to the fatal accidents that happened on that construction site, Fifa and the local organising committee have required the general contractor to take immediate steps to rectify the issues identified,” the letter read.

In a statement, Fifa said it continues to monitor all World Cup construction in Russia, adding that no further evidence has been found of North Korean workers on any sites. “These activities are part of a broader effort by Fifa to systematise and enhance its activities to ensure respect for human rights throughout its operations,” the statement read.


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