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From May Day to Labor Day, GlobalPost explores the human cost of what's been called a "race to the bottom." The hyper-accelerated movement of capital, jobs and resources from the world's corporations — manufacturing, agriculture and service — to the lowest bidder. In an era of diminished expectations, broken promises and sleight of hand, these are labor stories of governments, employers, unions and workers.
Confidence schemes lure hundreds of thousands of workers from weaker neighboring economies.
VOLGOGRAD, Russia — As night settled over the southern Russian city of Volgograd, three weary figures emerged from the shadows of a wooded lot near a defunct bread factory on the edge of town. The men, unregistered migrant workers from Nukuz, an impoverished and drought-ridden city in former Soviet republic Uzbekistan, took turns speaking quietly while looking over their shoulders.
“We only go in the dark,” Shaidulla K., 38, said. “No one will investigate what really happened, they’ll just deport us.”
Russia’s recent economic growth has given rise to slave labor schemes enticing waves of migrant workers from Russia’s poor regions and former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. About 600,000 people in the country are considered trafficked slave laborers, according to expert estimates, lured by the false promises of enterprising middlemen into a murky realm where few legal protections exist.
“Slave labor is growing because the economy is growing,” said Vera Gracheva, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe coordinator for combatting trafficking in human beings. “The need for labor is growing faster than supply of workers. The world economy is global, its interest is to exploit cheap labor.”
Globally the human trafficking business has been estimated to yield $31 billion annually, costing $21 billion in lost wages to the formal economy. While exploitation of trafficking victims includes forced prostitution, begging and illicit organ sales, forced manual labor has become the most widespread manifestation of human trafficking in Russia and has grown into a multi-billion dollar business in Europe alone.
“The world economy is global, its interest is to exploit cheap labor.”~Vera Gracheva, OSCE coordinator
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Criminal syndicates who illegally import labor into Russia have tended to operate with relative immunity from government intervention, particularly in southern regions farther from Moscow, where anti-corruption efforts hold the least sway.
"These criminal groups have very strong roots," said Mojumder Amin, president of the Federation of Migrants of Russia. "If the police break the law, who will enforce it?"
For over a month, Shaidulla, his cousin Muratbek K., 29, neighbor Karzabai Y., 41, and three of their friends spent their days demolishing old buildings on the outskirts of the city by hand for 300 rubles a day ($10). At night they relaxed, keeping to the unlit river bank. They feared that on the streets their dark skin could attract police attention and requests for identification and residency documents, which they did not have.
The men were promised lucrative agriculture jobs by an acquaintance who claimed to work with an employment company. They call him Shukhrat Amonov, although they suspect he uses a fake name.
Muratbek met Amonov during a temporary construction job in Russia last year. Migrant workers usually come to Russia for several months of the year to work in construction, farming, street cleaning and other temporary jobs.
At the end of last year Amonov told Muratbek to get a group of men together and come back to Russia to work.
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The men, several of whom have worked legally in Russia before, obtained the proper documents in Uzbekistan and payed Amonov to organize work permits and registrations for them.
Amonov then brought them to a cattle farm near Nalchik, a city in Russia’s restive Caucasus region. There the men worked grueling 14-hour days for nearly three months, and were told they needed to work off the cost of their transport from Uzbekistan and work permits.
They were not paid as promised and suffered frequent beatings from the management and beatings by other employers of the farm who were not Uzbek, condoned by management, they said. Once an Uzbek man, who was not part of their crew but who was also trafficked to the farm, was beaten badly in front of everyone to scare the rest of the Uzbek workers, the men said.
After several appeals Amonov promised he would find the men another job and help them get the money they earned in their two months on the farm. He then brought them to Volgograd, a historic city on the Volga River. The six were paid 60,000 rubles ($2,041), but Amonov promptly asked for their money and passports to make new registration documents, keeping some of the men's passports without explanation.
The men's new boss, an Armenian construction site owner, checked their registrations and found them to be fake, the men said.
“What was our crime? We came with a company, paid for a work permit,” Karzabai said.
The three Uzbeks’ story is far from unique.
There are no official statistics on what industries use slave or trafficked labor, but today farms, cattle ranches and fruit orchards across Russia, especially the south, exploit such laborers the most, said Yulduz Atanyazova, the Uzbekistan project coordinator of the nongovernmental agency Migration and Law.
The native population in rural areas is dwindling, with young people leaving the countryside for cities. Men like Amonov have identified an opportunity to fill the labor void by illegally bringing in workers from areas where employment opportunities are scarce.