Labor Trafficking in Context: From Central Asia to Russia


Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has been a destination for substantial numbers of people from the Central Asian republics migrating for work. However, the route to work in Russia is often a perilous one- filled with opportunities for exploitation and labor trafficking. Although some migrants may be considered irregular while others initially enter the country with legal documentation, the risk for labor trafficking is high in either case. To understand this complex example of trafficking, we must ask, why is it happening and what factors facilitate trafficking here? To answer these questions, I will examine how the problem is situated and what factors shape this issue of labor trafficking.

The presence of migrant workers in every day life in Russia is highlighted in this photo, while in actuality, their presence and struggle often goes unnoticed [Photograph by Misha Friedman for Bloomberg]

Exploitative Labor Practices: Slippery Slope to Forced Labor

Russia is labeled as a tier 3 country, the lowest ranking given by the TIP report, as of 2017, and labor trafficking is rampant in industries like construction, agricultural, textile, manufacturing, and street sweeping, in which migrants often work. Despite this, Russia is a major destination for migrant laborers, with the majority of migrant flows coming from the Central Asian republics of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan[1]. The issues surrounding documentation, increased visa restrictions and controls, and exploitative practices make the migrant labor market in Russia conducive to trafficking.

Many workers head to Russia by choice and/or migrate ‘legally’, but despite their initial status, they are often at risk for exploitation and labor trafficking. Once in Russia, workers often experience the same issues, such as physical abuse, poor living conditions and unsafe working conditions, withholding documents, or lack of payment for labor[2]. Moreover, many companies in Russia use “grey schemes” in which transparency is lacking and corruption is widespread, making this market a hot spot for labor trafficking[3]. Often employers promise legal residency and proper contracts, and once workers arrive, those documents never materialize[4]. As in the Sochi example, employers refuse to provide workers a copy of their signed employment contract or fail to provide any contract at all, and from this point, the migrant’s employment status will become irregular. Another pattern exposed at Sochi was the seizure and withholding of identification documents. This puts even those who initially migrated regularly at risk, as they may have their documents ultimately expire.

Aside from fraudulent practices leaving workers with an irregular status, subcontracting practices in Russia often result in delayed or non-payment for labor- leaving workers vulnerable[2]. Without being paid regularly or needing to wait for pay “until the work is complete” (a typical promise made by traffickers), workers have no means to support themselves and are left in the hands of the employer[5]. This traps migrants in a vulnerable situation, because leaving may be impossible without enough money to get home[4].

Without proper documentation or having an irregular status, workers are put in a precarious situation- seeking help from authorities in the event of abuse or exploitation brings its own risks. Human Rights Watch noted that when faced with these circumstances, many workers aren’t willing to reach out to authorities for assistance, because they fear being hit with fines or expulsion. The widespread issue of corruption in Russia also deters migrants from seeking help, as there have been reports of Russian officials allegedly helping exploiters avoid penalties, while other officials have demanded bribes from migrants[6]. Due to the widespread exploitative practices of employers in these industries and lack of recourse for migrants, these workers are often trapped in the hands of employers and subject to forced labor.

Economic Factors in Central Asia Fuel Labor Migration

Hundreds of thousands of workers from Central Asia migrate to other CIS countries for job opportunities, with Russia being the most popular destination[7]. These people leave their homes to find work in Russia despite the risks and potential exploitation, but why? Part of the reason is that the economies of most Central Asian states have been in shambles since the breakup of the Soviet Union, while the relative prosperity in Russia seems promising.

The transition depressions experienced after the collapse of the USSR were much harsher and longer lasting in most of Central Asia than in Russia[8]. With the breakup of the Soviet Union came the breakup of an economic system, as well as loss of previous economic ties, and a deep economic crisis developed in the post-soviet states[9]. The Central Asian republics, excluding Kazakhstan, have since been characterized by worsening social indicators and negative economic situations[8]. In these republics, youth employment rates are high while real wages have fallen[8]. The lack of employment opportunities in the home country lead many to view migration to Russia as a more favorable one[8].

Economic Factors in Russia Welcome this Labor

As for Russia, its economy heavily depends on cheap migrant labor, and the labor from Central Asian migrants in Russia fills this role. Migrant labor is generally not contracted or well regulated- therefore it is cheap[10]. Employers not only pay them less, but if they are irregular in status, employers can also evade tax and insurance contributions- or compensation altogether. Andrey Movchan, director of the economic policy program at the Moscow Carnegie Center, explains that Russia relies heavily on the cheap labor these migrants provide and warns that trying to remove these migrants from the workforce would be detrimental to the economy[4]. This photo below shows just how vital this labor is; although the labor needed for the housing in this one picture is staggering, it is just a small snippet of the major infrastructure and development in Russia that is depending on exploited migrant laborers.

A new housing development on the outskirts of Moscow is being built by migrants from the former Soviet Union member states for Russian military families. [Photograph by Misha Friedman for Bloomberg]

As Movchan explains, without these migrants it would be impossible to replace that cheap labor[4]. The industries in which migrants work are said to be full of “black work” (черная работа) which implies physical hard labor and low social standing[10]. By doing “black work”, migrant workers from Central Asia are able to fill a part of the Russian labor market when they come to work in jobs in construction and street cleaning- they fill the jobs that middle-class Russians do not particularly want[8]. Furthermore, the major industrial regions in which companies rely heavily on cheap migrant labor offer such low wages, that its speculated few Russians would be willing to work for[1].

The demographic crisis in Russia also plays a part. With a rapidly aging population and potential for labor shortage, some experts acknowledge that migrants are vital to maintaining the Russian economy in the future[1]. Despite the risks of seeking work in Russia, it is speculated that these migration trends will continue as larger youth and working-age populations in Central Asian republics will likely not have enough economic growth to supply them with jobs[8].

Historical Routes of Labor Migration and Changing Restrictions

This route to Russia for work is rooted in historical migration trends. During the Soviet Union, the persistence of labor deficits prompted seasonal labor “brigades”, and this promotion of seasonal labor both helped increase labor resources in deficit areas while giving workers from Central Asia favorable earning opportunities[8]. For example, in the 1970s when parts of Russia had labor shortages, those from other republics would move to such areas for higher wages[7]. Timothy Heleniak explains the entanglement well:

“Though the Central Asian republics and Russian are no longer part of one country, it has become apparent that they continue to constitute one migration space with many of the same regional development and labor supply issues that they inherited from the Soviet period” (55) [8].

Relatively open migration policies were replaced after the fall of the Soviet Union with increased restrictions on migrants and visa enforcement (10). A quota system was developed in an attempt to match the number incoming migrant workers with the number of workers needed; yet, in reality, more workers have been needed than the quota limit allows for, fueling work in the shadow economy[11]. With limited opportunities for legal labor migration, workers continue to pursue the alternative, irregular migration[7].

In 2015, Russia announced increased passport restrictions which hit migrant workers from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan the hardest[13]. Prior to this, citizens from CIS states could enter Russia using national identity cards, however, legislation now requires an international passport (with exception for those from member states of the EEU). Aside from the cost of an international passport, migrants have to pass a Russian language, history and law test, as well as obtain health insurance and present proof of various medical tests- all of which must be completed within a month of their arrival; then they must pay for a work permit[12]. Laborers from countries which don’t have a visa policy with Russia, aside from these tests and health requirements, need to get a patent to work legally in Russia – the cost of which was increased over three-fold in 2015[12].

Although authorities framed these changes as an effort to make the labor system more transparent for migrants and lessen shadow intermediaries, it’s questionable whether migrants would be able to afford all the necessary tests and payments and whether they would be able to navigate the difficult process and bureaucratic hurdles. Increased restrictions and requirements like these instead make it harder for migrants to comply, increasing chances for irregular migration and trafficking.

Viewed as Criminals, Lowly Workers, But Not Victims

Cultural factors are also at play when it comes to the treatment of Central Asian migrant laborers. Although these people were once considered a part of the Soviet Union, living together as one country, they have now gained a racialized ‘other’ status in Russia. The view of these migrants plays a role not only in a general obliviousness to their exploitation, but also in how they are actually treated. Due to the negative stereotypes surrounding them, migrants are often viewed as criminals- not as victims of crimes themselves.

Media reports and statements made by law enforcement and government officials, including the Russian president, have created a sense of panic and concern surrounding migrants in recent years- especially those from Central Asian republics- citing them as the major sources of crimes in Russia [3]. Not only are they associated with criminal activities, migrants are seen as substandard. Studies have repeatedly found that a major part of the Russian population holds negative attitudes towards Central Asian migrants, and they often face discrimination in housing markets and when trying to access social services among other negative treatment[1].

In a 2017 report published by Levada-Center, “Attitudes towards migrants”, 38% of respondents reported having a bad attitude towards migrant laborers from Central Asia. In another question, the highest percentage of respondents (32%) chose the description “As a general rule they are uneducated and only capable of unskilled labor” as the most characteristic quality of migrant laborers. The next highest percentage of respondents (28%) selected “As a general rule they are unfortunate and forced to endure extreme hardships and deprivation”; this would suggest a major contrast is emerging in the understandings of migrants and their situations. However, in response to the question of whether the Russian government should attempt to limit immigration or place no administrative barriers, 67% responded that they should attempt to limit immigration.

Despite a slight contrast in opinions, harassment and hate crimes against Central Asian migrants still take place, but often go unreported [11]. With an irregular status, migrants may be wary of reporting crimes to the authorities. Officials themselves are dangerous to Central Asian laborers, for they have been reported to harass and exploit migrants[6]. Moreover, a report found that because of daily racism many migrants face, they limit their time in public as a result- pushing them further into the shadows[1].

Responses to Trafficking and Moving Forward

The 2017 TIP report asserts that the Russian government has continued to inadequately address the problem of trafficking. Among the issues, the report highlights that the Russian government did not offer any funding or programs for rehabilitation of trafficking victims’; aside from a lack of government sponsored options, many private shelters remain closed due to a lack of funding and the recent crackdowns on NGO’s in Russia. Moreover, it noted the difficulties created for migrants by Russia’s requirements for legal migrant labor. Based on the driving economic factors, labor migration to Russia will likely continue, so going forward, it seems that responses should address the lack of opportunities for labor migration and complications of current policies. Furthermore, the widespread abuses by employers and contractors must be investigated to prevent trafficking opportunities. In the long-term, the underlying economic issues will need to be addressed as well.




[1] Laruelle, Marlene. “Central Asian Labor Migrants in Russia: The “Diasporization” of the Central Asian States”. China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly, 5. (2007)
[2] 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report. Country Overview: Russia.
[3] Eastern promises: why migrant workers are turning their backs on Russia. The Guardian. (2016).

[4] Ragozin, Leonid. Russia Wants Immigrants the World Doesn’t. Bloomberg. (2017)
[5] Tyuryukanova, Elena. “Illegal, trafficked, enslaved? Irregular migration and trafficking in persons in Russia.” In Ulusoy, M. (Ed.). Political violence, organized crimes, terrorism and youth. (IOS Press, 2007). 120.
[6] Zabyelina, Yuliya. “Between exploitation and expulsion: Labour migration, shadow economy and organized crime. In Heusala, A. & Aitamurto, K. Migrant workers in russia: global challenges of the shadow economy in societal transformation (Routledge: 2017).100.
[7] Sulaimanova, Saltanat. “Migration Trends in Central Asia and the Case of Trafficking of Women”. In Burghart D.L. and Sabonis-Helf, T. (Eds). In the tracks of tamerlane: central asia’s path to the 21st century. (Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute: 2017).
[8] Heleniak, Timothy. “An Overview of Migration in the Post-Soivet Space”. In Buckley, C., Ruble, B., & Hofmann, E. Migration, homeland, and belonging in Eurasia. (Woodrow Wilson Center Press: 2008).
[9] Korobkov, Andrei. “Post-Soviet Migration: New Trends at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Centrury”. In Buckley, C., Ruble, B., & Hofmann, E. Migration, homeland, and belonging in Eurasia. (Woodrow Wilson Center Press: 2008).
[10] Reeves, Madeleine. “Black Work, Green Money: Remittances, Ritual, and Domestic Economies in Southern Kyrgyzstan“. Slavic Review. 71, no. 01: 108-134. (2012).
[11] Buckley, Mary. The Politics of Unfree Labour in Russia: Human Trafficking and Labour Migration. (Cambridge University Press: 2018).
[12] Luxmoore, Matthew. Ruble ripple: New Russian laws make life difficult for migrant workers. Aljazeera. (2015).
[13] Putz, Catherine. Times Are Getting Tougher for Central Asian Migrant Workers in Russia. The Diplomat. (2015.)



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