STAVROPOL, Russia - Nikolai agreed to speak to me only if we do not reveal his real name. He comes from the city of Poltava, Ukraine, where his wife and his little daughter live. Trained as a construction engineer, he thought that he would earn more in Russia with his qualification.
He contacted an agent, who found him a job in the Russian city of Stavropol, but not the one Nikolai expected. The agent took his passport and made him sign a 200 US dollars receipt for transportation and accommodation cost and the agent's fee. Nikolai ended up in the vicious circle of debt bondage: if he wants to quit he would have to pay back the 200 dollars debt plus another 100 dollars fine, but he simply does not have this money.
"They pay me 1,000 rubles (about 35 US dollars) a month which is hardly enough to buy food, cigarettes and clothes. The rest, they say, is taken to cover my debt. I cannot go anywhere without my passport, we are locked here at the construction site. If you refuse to work they may beat you. I dream to get back home but I do not see how - I have to pay back the debt first".
Nikolai works from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. six days a week building dachas, the famous Russian country houses. He was promised a job as a fore worker but now he lays bricks and tiles, or works as a carpenter. He does everything his employer tells him to do.
According to the ILO's global report on forced labour, the informal economy, where the government's control of wages and labour conditions is minimal, is a good breeding ground for forced labour. Poverty is another factor. Although Russian GDP growth rates have been high over the past few years, poverty remains massive: 27 per cent of the population lives below the subsistence level. Low incomes bar large groups of the population from proper education and healthcare.
The situation is worse in the other member States of the Commonwealth of Independent States, including Ukraine, and in other neighboring countries like China. Russia is witnessing a growing influx of an estimated 4 to 5 million illegal migrants from these countries. Scarce chances to find a way out of the vicious circle of poverty forces many to use risk strategies in order to find a job and earn a living for themselves and their families.
But the ILO report also clarifies that forced labour certainly cannot be equated simply with low wages or poor working conditions. It comprises two basic elements: the work or service is exacted under the menace of a penalty, and it is undertaken involuntarily. This menace can take extreme forms such as physical violence, but also subtler forms such as the confiscation of identity papers or threats of denunciation of irregular migrants to police authorities, in order to take unfair advantage of them.
According to an ILO survey conducted in Russia ( Note 2), 47 per cent of labour migrants in the country have to work on uncertain wage conditions or without any payment at all, 71 per cent have to toil to exhaustion, and 51 per cent are forced to do jobs they had not agreed to voluntarily.
About 30 per cent of migrants are denied freedom of movement and find themselves partially isolated from society, 20 per cent have had their passports confiscated by the employer, and 12 per cent are indebted to their employers and cannot quit employment by their own free will. An estimated 22 per cent of women migrants say they are sexually exploited.
The ILO report on Russia also underlines the link between human trafficking and forced labour. Russia is both a recipient and a donor country in international human trafficking for labour and sexual exploitation.
Corruption and racketeering also play a major role in perpetuating the vulnerable position of irregular migrant workers. The global report refers to an ILO survey covering Tajik male migrant workers in the Russian construction industry. All workers claimed that they had been repeatedly under pressure from law enforcement agencies. A worker without a residence permit faces the threat of deportation.
This has led to the emergence of a criminal business that blackmails and harasses these workers in order to extort money. In addition, over 1,000 companies in Moscow offer temporary permits that are usually forged, making these migrants easy prey for corrupt law enforcement officers, says the report.
The Palermo Trafficking Protocol to the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime urges countries to pass legislation and action programs ensuring adequate measures to fight against human trafficking and slavery. Russia has begun the struggle against human trafficking by complementing its Criminal Code with an article on human trafficking and slave labour at the beginning of 2004.
"This is probably not enough. The spread of forced labour in Russia is due to many problems referring to economic, labour, migration and other legislations, as well as to their application", says Roger Plant, Director of the ILO's Special Action Program to Combat Forced Labour, adding "Labor inspection and other forms of control are weak and the lack of social justice contributes to forced labour and exploitation practices".
Exploitation of migrant workers from less successful countries is incompatible with the notion of decent work. Plant calls it a tragedy "that many people trapped in poverty can submit to such exploitation, this being their only trump card in competition for available jobs. Intensified awareness raising is now essential, to open society's eyes to the unacceptable and criminal nature of such exploitative practices, reduce tolerance towards them, and punish those responsible for such abusive practices".
The global alliance against forced labour proposed by the ILO requires an active response from national governments and all progressive social forces, including employers' and workers' organizations. At present, Russia is ready to become an active member of this alliance and continue the struggle against forced labour.
Note 2 - E. Tyuryukanova, Forced labour in the Russian Federation today, International Labour Office, Geneva 2005 (Russian edition: 2004).