A construction worker’s death casts a shadow on Paris Olympics journey

Amara Dioumassy died one year ago, prompting labour unions to call for better safety standards.

Amara Dioumassy, a 51-year-old construction site supervisor, died a year ago in Paris [Courtesy of Lyes Chouai]

Paris, France – Under a soft but steady rain, several dozen people gathered on Pont d’Austerlitz, the bridge over the Seine River, on a late April Saturday, shielding themselves with scarves, hoods and umbrellas.

Some held up signs and banners that called for “Justice for Amara”. Others read: “Amara, a victim of serious employer onsite safety breaches.”

The rally in Paris, organised by one of France’s largest labour unions, the Confederation Generale du Travail (CGT), was in honour of Amara Dioumassy, who was killed on June 16, 2023 while working on a construction project as a supervisor at the Bassin d’Austerlitz to improve the quality of the Seine.

Dioumassy, a 51-year-old father of 12 from Mali, was hit by a truck near the end of his shift.

“We organised this mobilisation to honour our brother, comrade and colleague,” said Lyes Chouai, CGT’s union delegate for Sade, the company that employed Dioumassy.

“There were serious safety issues. There were no signs for pedestrian crossings, no traffic flow, the trucks did not have a beep sound when backing up, even though there was poor visibility. There was no one directing the trucks,” he added.

Chouai visited the site after the tragedy.

“I met a young man who told me that Amara was one of the first people to arrive on site on the morning of June 16. He had bought a bag of pastries and distributed them to all the workers, encouraging them to take more than one,” he said.

“Amara’s coworker had tears in his eyes when he told me this story. Amara was someone who always smiled and was kind and generous to people he worked with and his friends. He was a force of nature, but his face always had kindness and he always looked after people. His family also told me he was always the person who his brothers and sisters confided in, who moderated family discussions and looked after everyone in Mali.”

The Bassin d’Austerlitz project, which cost 100 million euros ($109m) according to the mayor’s office, is intended to store rain and wastewater, preventing it from flowing directly into the Seine.

Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, has approved a request to memorialise Dioumassy near where he was killed.

“An alley in Square Marie-Curie will bear his name,” the city of Paris said.

Cleaning up the Seine has been one of the cornerstones of Hidalgo’s second term.

The city has promised that the Seine will be clean enough to host open-water swimming and triathlon events during the 2024 Summer Olympics and Paralympics.

“Because of the Olympics, there were deadlines to meet for certain construction sites, such as this one, which had the goal to make the Seine more swimmable for the Olympics and the events that will take place. There were deadlines, stress, pressure on workers,” Lyes said.

Many of the city’s grand projects for the games, such as those to clean up the Seine, come with labour costs.

Infrastructure projects are contracted out to large construction companies with varying degrees of labour code enforcement. There have been at least 181 workplace accidents, including 31 serious accidents, on construction projects related to the Olympics, according to Nicolas Ferrand, director of SOLIDEO – a publicly-funded firm established to build the permanent facilities that will remain after the event.

Accidents and workers’ rights violations are not unique to Olympics construction, but there is pressure to complete everything by the hard deadlines set for the games, and safety can start to slip through the cracks.

This is a trend that Jules Boykoff, researcher and author of the book Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics, has observed throughout multiple venues, including London and Rio de Janeiro.

“When it comes to the city, the Olympics often acts like a parasite and puts all these different demands on cities, including the deadlines that the Olympics automatically bring,” Boykoff told Al Jazeera.

“When you have deadlines, like to build the Olympic Village, for example, all sorts of possibilities around corruption that kick into motion – all sorts of possibilities around worker exploitation to meet those external deadlines by that parasitic organisation, the IOC [International Olympic Committee].”

Prior to the games, Paris 2024 Organising Committee and its partners established a “social charter” with social, economic and environmental goals, signed by trade unions and employer organisations on June 19, 2019.

The charter promised to “fight against illegal labour, anti‑competitive practices, and discrimination, and will monitor working conditions and limit unstable employment”.

“The Olympic Charter, in spite of everything, has made it possible to reduce the danger of construction sites. To have better traceability, even if everything is not perfect,” Gerard Re, confederal secretary of the CGT in charge of the rights of migrant workers, told Al Jazeera.

“With multiple subcontracting companies, inevitably, some of them worked with undocumented workers. Nevertheless, the fact that we had this charter and an organising committee with diverse representatives helped mitigate the possible effects.” As part of the charter, much of the construction for Olympic venues is directed SOLIDEO. The Bassin d’Austerlitz project was not, however, part of this group.

“On SOLIDEO projects, there were more regulations, respect for work,” Re said.

In France, where more than two workers are killed on average every day on construction sites according to the most recent report from France’s national health insurance system, the added pressure exacerbated ongoing challenges.

“The Olympics tend to magnify social issues and social problems that already exist in society,” Boykoff said. “There’s a clear track record, a clear Olympic trend where Olympic host cities enlist the assistance of undocumented labour, and because undocumented labour has so little leverage in society, they often, unfortunately, get exploited through these relations.”

France ranks as the fourth deadliest country in Europe for workers and has more reported workplace accidents than any other member of the European Union, with 560,000 incidents in 2022, said the health insurance report.

“For many years now in France, public services have been slashed, and labour inspectors are no exception. As a result, we are sorely lacking enough labour inspectors to enable us to check that companies are complying with the rules for working conditions. In terms of legislation, we’re also lacking—in particular on undocumented workers,” said Re.

He added that in France, 50 to 60 percent of workers in the construction sector are immigrants, with many undocumented.

In October 2023, more than 500 undocumented workers from 33 companies involved in construction projects for the games went on strike, refusing to return to work until they received proper immigration documents and the legal right to work in France. They gathered at the construction site at Arena de la Chapelle and threatened to occupy additional Olympics venues. After negotiations, they successfully legalised their migration status.

France’s strong history of organised labour does help push for some changes, such as the Olympic Charter.

“In Paris, what’s definitely stood out to me is the power of unions, and how they’ve really made it a point to use the Olympics as a source of leverage,” Boykoff said. “The more that you have savvy, organised labour, the better chance that you have that they’re going to use the Olympics for their own advantage.”

But unions still are pushing for better conditions. When asked at the rally what he hoped would change, Chouai said they want justice.

“We want justice for Amara. Justice would be when the management, the multinational companies in charge of construction projects, are held accountable for their lack of security,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera