Third Tier Slaves

June 21, 2013
Valery Sharifulin/ITAR-TASS

The State Department has placed Russia in the same rank as North Korea and Iran regarding the level of counteraction to the slave trade. 

The US State Department included Russia in the list of countries failing to meet “the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking,” along with Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Eritrea. The Trafficking in Persons report prepared by the State Department covers inhumane work conditions faced by migrants who come to work in Russia; even working on major projects like the Olympic construction sites in Sochi does not guarantee protection of human rights. The Russian Foreign Ministry believes that the State Department is deliberately “politicizing” problem and sees the US report on the same level as the “Magnitsky List.”

The US State Department published its annual report about work to eliminate trafficking and inhumane work conditions. The research takes into account cases when people are compelled to work through physical force, confiscation of their passports, non-payment of wages or are kept in “extremely poor conditions.”

The document contains the experience of various countries in combatting slave labor. The authors of the report have divided all countries into three tiers, based on the extent to which the government tries to combat this phenomenon.

According to the report, Russia belongs with those countries lacking minimum standards of elimination of forced labor. Other countries in this category include Algeria, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Kuwait, Libya, Mauritania, Papua New Guinea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Uzbekistan, Yemen and Zimbabwe. Unlike the majority of other countries listed, whose governments have not coped with the problem of the use of slave labor for many years, Russia has been put in the third tier for the first time.

As the authors of the rating explain, in the last nine years, while human rights defenders were conducting research and compiling reports, the Russian government has done nothing with the existing problem. Meanwhile, during this period the number of illegal migrants forced to work for kopecks under slave conditions has significantly grown. They are without medical insurance or identity papers and lack proper conditions under the Labor Code as well decent housing that would not degrade their human dignity

Human Rights Watch reports that the construction of projects for high-profile events has led Russia to bring in tens of thousands of labor migrants. Human Rights Watch has also found that:

Employers at the construction sites related to the forthcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi have withheld wages, failed to sign contracts, and confiscated passports and work authorizations in order to keep the workers under conditions of exploitation.

The authors of the document also noted that the existence of slave conditions of labor, according to unconfirmed reports, can be enabled by the police itself in Russia. Law-enforcement agents return illegal workers to their exploiters, and get off by paying bribes to officials in order to preserve the possibility of hiring illegal migrants.

Slave labor is most often used in construction, industry, trade, services and also farming, say the report authors. People can also be coerced into begging or drug sales. There are frequent reports of women and children being drawn into prostitution. Citizens of Russia are brought to work in the sex industry in Northeast Asia, Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East. By the same token, in Russia, migrants from European, African and Central Asian countries are often forced to become sex workers.

Given the existing problems, the US State Department recommends that Russia draft legislation and other measures that would enable Moscow to resolve the acute problem of the use of slave labor.

In particular, the State Department advises the development of non-profit organizations specializing in assistance to citizens kept in slave conditions, and also to increase the number of investigations of evidence of the use of illegal labor. In the event this does not occur, Russia may be threatened with sanctions from the US in the form of refusal to finance educational and cultural exchanges and also protests by Washington against assistance from the IMF and the World Bank. Sanctions may enter into force by 1 October of this year if President Barack Obama does not use his right of veto.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has already reacted to the State Department’s report. The reply published on the Foreign Ministry’s official web site notes that the Foreign Ministry does not consider the content of the report to be fair or justified:

Instead of a thorough and objective review of the reasons for the growth in the scale of trafficking, including on the territory of the USA itself, the authors of the report once again use an unacceptable methodological approach under which states are divided into rating tiers depending on their political sympathies or antipathies to the US State Department. In this context, it is not surprising that in the current report, Russia is included in the category of ‘malicious violators’ (i.e. in the third tier) deserving of punishment by the US through the application of sanctions.

This totally fits the logic of the recently passed Magnitsky Law and other democratizing tools that the American government tries to apply to relations with Russian in connection with a supposed growing violation of human rights in our country.

As the Foreign Ministry explains, State Department officials had earlier warned them of the forthcoming lowering of the rating and had familiarized them with the contents of the recommendations for combating slave labor:

We were advised to amend the law and law-enforcement practice in combating human trafficking, and accommodate ourselves to the American template. Obviously, from the outset this demand was not possible to fulfill; in the fight against organized crime, part of which includes combat of trafficking, Russian authorities will never be guided by instructions drafted in another country, much less fulfill terms set nearly in the form of an ultimatum.

The Foreign Ministry believes that the US has deliberately “politicized” the question of human trafficking.

Svetlana Gannushkina, head of Civic Assistance, believes that the problems described really exist and the criticisms have a basis. Says Gannushkina:

Our organization began to get involved in labor migrants precisely because this is really a very big problem. In my view, it is not so complicated to resolve it, however. They have to not just hunt down migrants in basements and take their last money from them. They have to begin with the employers, they have to check where these people work. In fact, they have to inspect them on the basis of the potentials for creating decent working conditions.

If the employer pays decent money to the worker and provides housing and medical insurance to the migrants, the workers would be more capable of work, since a competition would exist in hiring for jobs, says Gannushkina.

“The situation is completely horrible. Labor inspection completely refuses to defend these people because they have no labor contract,” she added.

The Prosecutor’s Office points to the Investigative Committee, and the Investigative Committee points to the Prosecutor’s Office. No one wants to defend these people, concludes Gannushkina.

That is not even to speak of the practice in Russia where women are used as sex slaves. One girl came to us for help, she had run away from home. When we turned to the police in order to get her passport back from her exploiters, it turned out that the police knew perfectly well where to find it. Why they hadn’t done anything about this brothel before, I don’t understand.