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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. 

Slave labor on the rise in Russia

Confidence schemes lure hundreds of thousands of workers from weaker neighboring economies.

Construction is the second largest industry to profit from trafficked laborers. It used to be the largest, but as the industry developed the use of slave labor began to wane.

The scheme usually goes like this: The victim’s countryman, likely an acquaintance, gains his trust and promises to help find work in Russia, with a weekly salary of up to $500. Once the victim enters Russia, his passport is confiscated and he is made to work without pay. First he is told that he needs to pay off his transportation, but it’s really a way to prepare the victim for working for free, Atanyazova said. 

Traffickers are a loosely organized crime network, without a definite structure, with many small cells comprised of people who do not seem connected to each other, experts said. 

“It’s very difficult to bust,” Gracheva said.

Lax law enforcement and rampant corruption make it easy for traffickers and those who profit from slave labor to get away clean. Traffickers pay the local police to look the other way, experts said.

The Federation of Migrants of Russia stopped working on the issue of human trafficking because they could not depend on support from law enforcement, the group’s president Amin said. 

The traffickers make deals with the local police, bribes are exchanged, and police protects their operations, he explained. Three years ago federation employees were threatened when they tried to investigate a Moscow region construction site suspected of using trafficked labor. Local police did not help.

There are few victim support centers, all working independently of each other and independently of the government. Trafficked laborers usually do not seek support from authorities because contacting police will most likely end in deportation and fines. 

The nearby former republics have made human trafficking a big issue, but Russia continues to ignore the problem, activists said. However, the high rates of unemployment and corruption in those republics make the trade in humans hard to control.

Russia signed the United Nations anti-trafficking protocol in 2000 as part of the UN’s convention against transnational organized crime. But Russia is one of the four countries yet to sign the European Security Council convention against human trafficking. The document is legally binding and requires that real changes be made. That is why the document has still not been signed, Gracheva said.

It’s difficult to file cases on labor trafficking because there are never any contracts. The courts require an employment contract to hear a labor violation case. Several attempts by Migration and Law to file cases with the courts have been denied, Atanyazova said. 


President Vladimir Putin wrote in one of his pre-election articles that the number of employees working in unsanitary conditions increased by 17 percent from 2004 to 2010, and now amounts to almost one third of all workplaces in Russia. 

“Some business owners and managers continue to behave as though it is the beginning of last century,” Putin wrote in an article titled “Building justice. Social policy for Russia.” “As though to gain a place in the market one must economize on workers.” 

But since the global economic crisis began, salaries have decreased for low-skilled labor, largely because of an influx of migrant workers who will do the job for much less, experts said. 

"Lowering the wages of one group of workers leads to lower wages in general," said Zhenya Otto, an activist with the Committee of International Workers. 

Although Putin regularly visits factories across the country, the government has contributed to a decline of workers’ rights since the 1990s. The new Labor Code passed in 2002 significantly restricted the rights of workers to strike. The code also does not prohibit the use of contract workers during a strike, as it should, according to international law.

Recently a clause that required companies to get the agreement of members of an independent union before firing its leader was removed from labor law. The erosion of labor protections has been paired with a privatization process that means education will stop being free starting next year and other social services are in the process of becoming commercial. 

The mass anti-government protests that have hit Russia after alleged fraud in the Dec. 4 parliamentary election have revived the dormant labor movement, Otto said. In the last 20 years, independent unions have been few and far between, and those in existence tended to claim very few members. 

There are official trade unions, but trust in those unions remains low. According to a 2008 Russia Public Opinion Research Center survey, only 2 percent of respondents said they will go to the unions, and 75 percent of Russians believe that unions have very little effect on workers' rights.

Last month saw two significant labor victories. Workers in an auto plant in Kaluga, an industrial city 150 km (93 mi) southwest of Moscow, were promised a salary increase after they went on a much publicized strike. Delivery drivers from Perekryostok supermarket chain formed an independent union after two fatal car accidents, which workers said were caused by the straining demands of the job and the lack of rest periods. The union now numbers 200 people.

Fortunately for the Volgograd men, their new boss at the construction site came through on his promise to help take care of their immigration problems. Employing migrants without proper work registration is agains the law in Russia and is punished by fines. He said he will hire them to do more work with better pay now that they have documents. 

Now that the men are documented they plan to file a case against Amonov with police and the Federal Migration Service. Shaidulla said he heard that Amonov is now planning to flee Volgograd.

"Don't believe anyone's words," Shaidulla said. "Everything has to be on paper, documented. Check everything."