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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

An Outbreak Spoils Enka's Recipe for Success

MTConstruction workers waiting in line to receive their lunch at a canteen in the Moscow region village of Mendeleyevo. Hundreds fell ill after a meal last week.
MENDELEYEVO, Moscow Region -- About 100 shabbily dressed men waited patiently in a snaking line to the front door of a peeling wooden shack that serves as a canteen.

In a small village, just off Leningradskoye Shosse, and very far from home, lunch was being served at the Morozovka camp for migrant construction workers.

Despite it being a workday, the laborers, instead of working on the construction of the $600 million Sheremetyevo-3 terminal, were recovering.

Last week the camp was one of two sites at the center of a major health scare when food given to the workers was suspected of causing a salmonella outbreak that left several hundred workers hospitalized.

Police began a criminal investigation into the suspected food poisoning, and Enka, the Turkish firm building Sheremetyevo's new international terminal, could face losing its right to hire foreign laborers. Such a ban would hit Enka hard. Enka, like its main competitors, relies heavily on migrant labor at its work sites, which have included Moskva-City and IKEA.

Morozovka, one of the camps run by Enka, is a fenced-off hodgepodge of a half-dozen low, long barracks. A former vacation resort, it houses six men to a room and 600 men in all from Turkey, Russia and various other former Soviet republics, mainly Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Such camps, where workers can earn less than $350 per month, are worlds away from the skyscrapers, Western consultants and billion-dollar deals of Moscow's surging real estate market.

On Tuesday afternoon, with construction crews decimated by the outbreak, the three rickety minibuses that ferry workers on the daily trip of roughly 20 kilometers to their work stood idle by the compound's gate.

Ali, a gaunt man in a grubby,

open-necked shirt and crumbling sandals, who had moved from Turkey to find work several years ago, stood at the back of the lunch line.

"Yes, I was ill," he said in broken Russian. "We were all ill, about 1,000 of us, but I am better now." He thought that the outbreak had come from eggs, he said. Like his workmates, he said he did not want to give his full name, for fear of being fired.

Next to Ali, a middle-aged man with graying hair, who spoke only the odd word of Russian, nodded his head in response to a vomiting gesture. He said, "Yes," and smiled, revealing a pair of gleaming gold incisors.

When asked if they would agree to be photographed, the men were quick to refuse.

"They have forbidden us from talking and we would lose our jobs if they found out," Ali said.

At the entrance to one of the barracks, just past a line of four wooden outhouses, men stood in torn pajamas behind white tape meant nominally to demarcate a quarantine zone. Sitting in an office inside, Enka's personnel director, Azamat Kutlugildin, recounted the sequence of events.

"On June 19 in the evening two workers fell ill and then a further eight and so on," Kutlugidlin said. "We soon called in the emergency medical services."

The local authorities said in a statement the infection began at another camp, Iskorka, about 20 kilometers from Morozovka. The outbreak spread to Morozovka three days later, the statement said.

This week, entrance was barred to the Iskorka camp and a security guard said all the workers had been taken away.

Andrei Barkovsky, a spokesman for Moscow region Governor Boris Gromov, said that Enka workers from two sites were taken to about 10 hospitals across the region. As of Tuesday, 232 workers were still hospitalized, local authorities said.

"According to current information, the illness has been diagnosed as salmonella. It has been established that the food was delivered to the construction workers from Moscow," the Moscow region prosecutor's office said in a statement Monday.

Despite local officials blaming the outbreak on salmonella in the food given to the workers, Kutlugidlin remained skeptical.

"It was not salmonella. No one has shown me any official forms showing that it is salmonella from our food," he said. "Most likely those first two [workers] brought some sort of infection into the camp."

Kutlugidlin shrugged off suggestions that construction work at Sheremetyevo was being hampered, and insisted that almost all the sickened workers were now better.

"Today we received permission to get back to work. Yesterday and today we had days off, but tomorrow we will go back to work," he said.

"I myself ate at that very canteen on the day that the outbreak happened. I fell ill as well, but now I am better," he said. "Now almost all the people are already better. There are some in this building who are still under observation but they are not ill."

Aeroflot, a major partner in the Sheremetyevo-3 project, insisted Wednesday that work on the terminal had been restarted and would not be delayed by the sickness outbreak. Talks were going on with subcontractors about hiring extra labor, the airline said in a statement.

Work on Sheremetyevo-3 began as long ago as 2001 but has been delayed by an ownership dispute. The new terminal is intended to be the airport's showcase facility, in place of the current international terminal that was built for the 1980 Olympic Games.

The sickness outbreak could have far more serious repercussions for Enka, a company with almost 20 years of experience in Russia.

After prosecutors opened a criminal investigation into the causes of the outbreak, reports surfaced that Enka could be stripped of its license to employ foreign laborers.

"There is this possibility and that has been spoken about," Kutlugidlin confirmed.

He said that he had met with the head of the Health and Social Development Ministry's watchdog, chief epidemiologist Gennady Onishchenko, in the past few days, in an attempt to resolve the situation.

Repeated calls to Onishchenko's office for comment went unanswered this week.

The regional prosecutor's office said the workers who fell ill and the managers at Enka would be questioned as part of the criminal investigation.

A spokeswoman for Enka's managing director, Burak Ozdogan, said company officials were meeting Wednesday to discuss the matter. Ozdugan would not comment further, she said.

Asked about conditions at the Morozovka camp, Kutlugildin said it had been checked repeatedly and approved by government agencies.

A statement from the administration in the Solnechnogorsky district, where the outbreaks occurred, however, criticized Enka over its lack of care for its workers, saying that local authorities had been forced to step in and feed them.

"Due to the failure of ... Enka to fulfill its obligations toward the workers that remained behind in the camps, hot food was handed out," the statement said.

The local administration said it had fed 1,200 people on Friday and 550 on Saturday.

Samad Shokhin, a spokesman for Migration and Law, an information center that helps migrant workers from Central Asia, said the incident highlighted how difficult conditions were for the workers.

"It is difficult to say that the conditions in such camps are adequate," Shokhin said. "These men come looking for work and are willing to live in any conditions to earn money."

The workers are usually paid either by the hour or the job and send remittances of about $200 per month to their families back home, he said. Workers were rarely provided with medical insurance and often cheated out of money by their employers, he said.

Shokhin said it was not the first instance of widespread food poisoning on major construction projects, and cited as a recent example the construction site at a major new Moscow hotel set to open soon.