New Forced Labour in Russia

News | 04 March 2004

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If countries have jobs available for migrants, governments must create legitimate mechanisms for migrants to be able to take those jobs, says a new ILO study presented in Moscow today.

New Forced Labour in Russia is the first study of coercive aspects of irregular migration in the country conducted in 2003 in Moscow, the Moscow region, Omsk and the Stavropol territory by the ILO’s Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour.

In early 90s Russia became an actor in the international labour migration as a receiving, sending and transit country. Today the number of irregular migrants in Russia is estimated at 3.5 to 5 million persons, mainly from the CIS countries and the South-East Asia.

The Russian labour market is structured similarly to many receiving countries. Although in the country as a whole the employment ‘niches’ for migrants are only being formed, in many regions and major cities migrant labour has already become a tangible part of economy. Very often migrants, who provide comparatively cheap services, serve the needs of the emerging Russian middle class (household services, construction works). Soon the Russian economy will depend on the influx of migrant labour the same way as developed economies depend on it today, says the study.

Economic instability, the huge scale of the “shadow” economy, incomplete migration laws – all this make it possible for irregular migrants to stay in the country and to get illegally employed, and for black dealers - to manipulate people, making high profits.

The study noted serious ‘gaps’ in Russian criminal, labour and migration law. With the introduction into the Criminal Code in December 2003 of new clauses penalizing slavery labour and human trafficking, the legal solution of those problems moved ahead but has not been completed. The labour legislation, for instance, fails to regulate properly the relations of forced labour and labour exploitation, especially in case of migrants who are mostly engaged in the informal economy. The migration legislation is chaotic and also has a lot of ‘gaps’. The study calls for a more effective law enforcement, for a fight against corruption, and for a public awareness campaign to counteract the tolerant attitude of the authorities and the society towards human exploitation.

One of the most serious problems in the country is corruption, which has impregnated all sph res and aspects of labour migration. The scale it has achieved in Russia (over 70% of fines for not having registration are paid by migrants unofficially, i.e. are bribes) requires urgent steps to improve the situation.

The study noted an extremely low level of formalization of labour relations and its negative effect on the social and personal protection of the working migrants. Less than 25% of the polled migrants have work permits. 74% of migrants get their wages in so called “black cash”, which means they do not pay any tax or charge. Less than 20% of labour migrants have a signed contract with employer.

The Russian chaotic market and corruption among officials result in serious marginalisation of labour migrants and the emergence of new forms of forced labour and slavery-like conditions. The study examined a wide range of data and identified different elements of violence - from deception and blackmail to abduction - that are already present in the migration and employment in Russia. In the process of work the wide-spread forms of exploitation of migrants are: compulsion to work extra-time without pay (62%), highly intensified work (44%), lengthy wage delays (39%), compulsion to perform work for which consent has not been given (38%), compulsion to work without pay (24%), compulsion to provide sex services (22% of polled women), psychological violence, threats, blackmail (21%), restricted freedom of movement – being kept locked up all the time or for some time (20%). Such cases are now so wide-spread in the country that they are not perceived as marginal or unlawful practices, but as a normal state of affairs.

Moscow has, in comparison with other regions, the highest incidence of the worst forms of exploitation and forced labour: sexual exploitation (30% of women), limitation of freedom in the form of control over movement, keeping people locked up (31%) and physical violence (13%).

One of the frequently encountered features of forced labour and human trafficking is withdrawal of migrants’ documents: in more than 20% of cases a passport of migrant is kept by his/her employer, this being an infringement of law in itself and an element of exploitation. Thus it is easier for an employer to illegally exploit and control the worker. Only 37% of those surveyed responded they could freely leave their employer, 12% of them have debts and roughly 10% are under the threat of deportation or violence.

The survey showed that victims of labour exploitation distrust the authorities and do not wish to obtain justice and punishment for criminal exploiters. This demonstrates a low level of law awareness among migrants as well as the objective weakness of the protection mechanisms in the Russian legal system. The situation is exacerbated by growing xenophobia, even on the official level, as well as by widespread corruption and by linking of law-enforcement agencies with criminal elements.

Russia is following the already existing pattern of other receiving countries, where an economic regime has been formed to reserve for migrants the most informal employment segments. Today almost fifty percent of jobs in the sphere of massive employment in Russia can be considered as purely migrant, in other words, “allocated” to migrants for many years to come. Among the factors making migrants more advantageous in the eyes of the Russian employers is their consent to be informally employed, which in fact means to become an object of exploitation and even of forced labour, the study says.

Roger Plant, Head of the ILO Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour, travelled to Moscow for the launch of the study. Speaking at the press conference, he noted that “trafficking today is in large part a question of forced labour exploitation. To combat it effectively, all labour institutions must be involved. We hope that this study by shedding light on the problems can constitute a first step towards solving them”.