Road to slavery


Work abroad has all the allure of Klondyke’s gold mines for our fellow citizens. It’s not just yesterday’s schoolgirls who forget the saying that free cheese comes only in a mousetrap, but worldly wise construction workers and specialists with a higher education. 


“Our miners glorify the city’s proud name through their deeds”. This sign greets you as you approach Sukhodolsk. There are any number of such little towns and settlements in the Luhansk region. Half a century ago trains full of settlers headed in this direction, now young people run from here, mainly to Russia, with the border a stone’s throw away. In Sukhodolsk they tell you that if you don’t go to work on construction sites in Moscow, only the mines remain for earning money to feed your family. However forty mines in the region have closed down in recent times, not to mention hundreds of other enterprises. On average in Ukraine every million made from coal has cost three or four miners their lives. There have been days of national mourning on several occasions following tragedies at the mines of Sukhodolsk. The fate of miners’ widows and orphaned children is another subject. Some miners’ wives use the death of their husband as their only chance to leave the country and at least somehow change their fate. In Soviet times Sukhodolsk had 26-28 thousand people. These days in many blocks of flats, every fourth flat is standing empty. You quite often have down-and-outs, alcoholics and drug addicts squatting in such empty flats.

Sukhodolsk  resident, Olha Sira says that three of her girlfriends “have been lucky” – they’ve gone to Greece. Does she understand that the girls may have ended up in sexual bondage?  Olha’s response is brutally frank:

“I know, but it’s no better here: half the guys are on drugs, the others – alcoholics. There’s no work, just poverty, emptiness. Let the girls see the world”.

Body for business

Chekhov’s words “To Moscow!” (the dream and constant refrain of the three sisters – translator) have taken on a particular meaning in the Luhansk region. Here there are a fair number of people whose work has criminal connections. An example being the murder of a prominent Russian banker. And how many Luhansk girls walk the streets? “The body’s for business” – that’s about them.

Press Secretary of the Luhansk Border Unit, Senior Lieutenant Andriy Demchenko reports: “On 8 February 2007 at the border control point  “Dovzhansky”  border guards and law enforcement officers uncovered a human trafficking channel.  During passport checks, they detained one man and three women. All of the young women are from the mining town of Rovenky. The eldest is 24, the youngest – 17.  There is no doubt that the women were being sent to Russia to work in the sex industry. They were accompanied by a 26-year-old man from the area with a previous conviction.” Overall in 2006 around 40 cases were uncovered in the Luhansk region where young women were being taken abroad for sexual exploitation. This was prevented in the cases of around 60 women, half of whom were minors, aged between 14 and 17. Human rights groups say that the demand for “underage live commodities” is on the increase. These girls are usually from poor or disturbed families or from children’s homes. 

Russian roulette

Gennady Z. told us of his experiences in Moscow. His case is unfortunately typical.

-  “It all began with an advertisement in the newspaper: “Workers without building specialization needed for CIS countries. Wages from 800 USD [literally “agreed units”; the figure is per month] and higher”. Me and a friend called the number they gave. They promised an advance of a thousand roubles [around 35 USD] when we arrived. They were supposed to pay the same amount at the end of each week worked.”

The young men arrived in Moscow in a group of 7. They were met at the railway station by a go-between. He received money – from each of them almost 30 percent of a month’s wages. The Ukrainians worked on a construction site 12-14 hours a day.  The promised weekly advance was given once a month, and on occasion only once every two months. These delays in payments meant that the lads went hungry. The living conditions were appalling with 25 people in a room, with bunks and a shared wash basin. Often hungry and weakened by the work, people fought among themselves and there were cases of people being killed. The bosses paid money on a regular basis to the police and so the latter turned a blind eye to what was going on in the supposed “hostel”, which was effectively a labour camp.

–  “Moscow police patrols have a sharp eye. They stop you, supposedly to check your documents. They take you without any reason to the police station, hold you there for three days, beat you and take your money away. It hardly ever happens that our people return from Moscow with their health intact and with their money. Most often there are tragic stories”, Gennady said, looking down.

Up to 15 January there was a 90-day extended period before you had to register in the case of any Ukrainians coming to Russia (as against a 3-day period for others). Now, instead of registration, you are on a migration register. The migrant and the receiving party (this including the employer) fill out a form at any post office and send it to the Federal Migration Service. The stub from the form is the person’s proof of registration. This by the way must be formalized within three days of crossing the border. If the foreigner is not simply a visitor, but has come to Russia to work, the response from the migration service as to whether s/he can have a work permit is given within ten days. That at least is what they promise,. This then is the strict law of Russian hospitality. Admittedly there are no forms yet at the post offices.

Poland in anticipation of new guest workers

In the train between Luhansk and Kyiv I got talking with another passenger, Oleh, a 27-year-old construction worker.

– “I approached one Luhansk company, paying them 500 US dollars for their services in finding me work abroad. According to their contract, the firm promised to sent me to Portugal and find me a job there. The sanitary conditions in the Lisabon hostel were terrible: there were bed bugs and one WC for three floors. We paid ourselves for food and board. After they hadn’t found us work for 13 days, I began ringing the director of the firm, but with no result. After that, they tried to get some criminals to deal with me and I had to hide from them. Then they deported me from Portugal with a ban on returning for five years. At home I approached the firm to complain, but scarcely managed to get out of there. I’m thinking of going to Poland to get work.” .

–  “Europe is rapidly aging, and the population is decreasing. There’s nobody to do the jobs, especially in agriculture, building sites and big factories”, the President of the Centre for European Cooperation (Wschowa, Poland) Markian Żeljak explains. –  “The average wages are 500 Euro a month. In Western Europe Poles can expect to earn three times more. After Poland entered the EU at least two million people left the country. At present unemployment in Poland stands at 20 percent, yet there’s nobody to do the jobs! Two years ago, according to different figures, there were between 400 thousand and one million Ukrainians in the country.  They continue to work on building sites, in agriculture and doing “housework”. They earn between 0.6 to 3 dollars per hour. The Polish government has prepared a package for simplifying the procedure for employing Ukrainians, however the trade unions are blocking it.: we don’t have workers here …

The Polish General Consul in Kyiv Sylwester Szostak told the newspaper that last year the Polish consulate in Kyiv had issued almost 133 thousand visas. “While the embassy is involved in politics, our specific task is to help people. We are ready to issue Ukrainians with work visas, but we need the potential employer to fill out the necessary papers with the local authorities and the department of labour. All of that is truly realistic!”, Mr Szostak asserts. “Then in Poland Ukrainian workers won’t have problems with the police.”

He says that the majority of visas are presently issued in Lviv (more than 300 thousand), then in Lutsk, Kyiv, Odessa and Kharkiv. The Polish Ministry of Labour is about to begin negotiations in Kyiv on introducing a simplified system giving Ukrainian construction workers, nurses and doctors access to the Polish work market from summer 2007. At present there is a particular demand in Poland for teachers of English. The net salary of a young specialist is around 400 USD per month, and if you add private lessons, the same amount again or even more. Polish teachers of English prefer to work for foreign firms. Our qualified teachers are going there, admittedly mostly from Western Ukraine. Young women from the Luhansk region prefer Cyprus, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Greece. Unfortunately they don’t work in those places as teachers.

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