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A Russian millionaire and his underpaid domestic staff in Geneva

Petroleum oligarch Rishat Safin was sentenced recently by the Office of the Attorney General in Geneva for years of employing badly paid and undeclared staff at his lakeside villa.

In 2005, upon visiting the village of Vésenaz above Lake Geneva, Rishat Safin was bowled over by a sumptuous villa in the chic southwest Swiss municipality.

Maybe it was the view over the lake or the calm of the place; whatever the reason, as the Tribune de Genève reported, Safin bought it for CHF20 million ($21.8 million).

Gotham City

Founded by investigative journalists Marie Maurisse and François Pilet, Gotham City is a newsletter focussing on legal oversight and economic crime.

Each week Gotham offers subscribers reports about fraud, corruption and laundering cases linked to the Swiss financial sector, based on publicly accessible legal documents.

Each month, it selects one of its articles, which it then expands and offers free of charge to SWI swissinfo.ch readers.

The amount is not astronomical for the Russian. Rishat Safin, a brother of Ralif Safin – a former vice-president of the Lukoil group, according to Russian Wikipedia – himself headed up a subsidiary of Lukoil, as well as founding the petroleum distribution company Artoil.

With a fortune of hundreds of millions, Safin – despite the discreetness of his setting up house in Switzerland – managed to find his way onto the “300 richest in Switzerland” list drawn up annually by the finance magazine Bilan.

However, 600 square metres of living space and 10,000 square metres of land don’t take care of themselves. Neither could Safin maintain them on his own. So, in 2011, he placed an ad in Russia looking for staff. After a quick interview on Skype, he would pay a plane ticket for the chosen domestic workers, women for the most part, who would then find themselves in Vésenaz.

Harsh conditions

Tasks varied from cleaning the residence to looking after Safin’s youngest daughter, and from cooking up his favourite semolina to polishing the silverware. But conditions were harsh: a week could last anywhere between 70 and 89 hours, and wages were lower than the minimum offered by Safin’s company. They also had to endure bullying by his mother, a woman who did not seem to appreciate the work of the Russian staff.

And if they complained, their passport could be confiscated; then they would be sent back to Russia.

Between November 2011 and June 2015, a succession of staff members came and went at the lakeside villa. After months of such high turnover, the situation eventually filtered through to the SIT trade union, which reported it to the Geneva cantonal office for inspection and workplace relations (OCIRT), which in turn launched an inquiry.

According to the sentence order handed down later by the Office of the Attorney General in Geneva, accessed by Gotham City, the OCIRT said that its inquiry had confirmed the poor working conditions at Safin’s residence. It also reported that Safin “purposely refused to provide precise information in an attempt to evade inspection and prevent the discovery of breaches”.

Partial conviction

When he appeared before a judge in Geneva, Safin was reportedly more forthcoming. “The accused admitted to the majority of facts put to him, except for those relating to the unfair exploitation of employees,” judge Cédric Genton said in the sentence order.

After the order, Safin decided to pay his staff according to existing collective agreements. He regularised their status with social insurance and tax authorities. A case at the Geneva labour court, which had been launched by the employees themselves, was withdrawn.

But the attorney general’s office still now needs to deal with some outstanding issues, including the unauthorised employment of foreigners, the lack of collaboration during the OCIRT inquiry, and possible human trafficking.

This last charge, however, was not included in the sentence order and the partial conclusions of June 16, 2020, which noted: “It has not emerged from these proceedings that the accused exerted any form of coercion on his household staff in order to exploit their work”.

Since some of the events are too old to be prosecuted, Safin received a fine of CHF270,000 – suspended for 180 days – a binding fine of CHF7,500, and CHF600 in legal charges. In the sentence order, he declared a monthly salary of CHF100,000.

After the affair, he left Switzerland to set up house in Cyprus, where he also took on Cypriot nationality, according to the recent Al Jazeera-led “Cyprus papers” investigation.

Safin’s lawyer, Pascal Aeby, declined to comment on the issue.

Translated from French by Domhnall O’Sullivan