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2013 (Narrative date)

Forced labour accounts for 98 percent of cases of modern slavery in Russia. Made up of both Russian and foreign workers, particularly from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan, these people are enslaved in the agricultural and construction sectors, in factories, private homes, forestry, automotive and fishing industries. Russia also stands as the second largest migrant receiving country in the world, and remains one of the top 5 destinations for Ukrainians seeking work. These migrant workers often rely on underground networks and intermediaries, not knowing exactly what work they are committing to. Increased unemployment, poverty and demands for cheap labour among Russian citizens, along with the flow of cross-border migration has created new pockets of vulnerability and opportunities for labour exploitation in the country.

Under pressure to make loan repayments, Oksana travelled from Ukraine with a friend to work at a wholesale market. After poor safety conditions led the women to request to be moved, they were taken to an abandoned stock base and ushered in to a small room filled with wooden pallets and dirty mattresses. Subjected to long-working hours and nightly sexual abuses, Oksana along with others eventually escaped, hitchhiking back to Ukraine.


I looked for jobs here and there and eventually I got a job at the market. We decided to take a loan to buy a washing machine and a fridge. I worked at the market and sold household cleaning products. I started to suffer from allergies to the chemicals. My health was more important so I quit this job and registered at the state employment center.

We had no money to make the repayments. With my husband at home, we started to have arguments “You don’t work!”, “You don’t work either!”

“You wanted to take a loan. Now how will we pay? Think! The interests are growing.”

They offered work as a retailer of Chinese goods at the wholesale market. The salary was for $500 - $600 (USD) a month. Accommodation and meals were free of charge. I asked her, “Can I go with you?” and she replied, “If you want to. You’re welcome.”

So we went. There were four of us – my friend, two more people and I. A rather nice middle-aged man met us at the railway station. He wasn’t suspicious at all. He talked nicely with us, in a friendly normal manner. He said, “Girls! Don’t worry, everything is going to be alright. You’re gonna have a cool job, and will earn money!”

We arrived at the wholesale market. He brought us to a large warehouse full of packages and giant bags with Chinese goods in them. An owner walked out and approached him. They talked about something, then that owner put about three bags in the vehicle. And then our guide said, “Alright, girls, I have to leave you now. If you don’t like something here, just let me know and I’ll come to pick you up. Don’t worry, everything will be fine.”

There was a moment when one of our girls tried reaching the top shelf to get a bag with a specific tag. She lost her balance and fell down. These bags pressed her down. She was going to suffocate if we didn’t help her.

Then we panicked. Because we thought today it was her, tomorrow it could be me. We talked about this to the owner and asked him to pay our weekly wage. We asked him to call the same person who brought us here, so that he take us away.

He started making calls and talking to someone. In a few hours our guide arrived. “If you don’t like it here, get ready. I’ll take you to another place”.

Finally, he brought us to the outskirts. There was an abandoned stock base there. Surrounded by a high fence. At this point he finally started to reveal his true character. He wasn’t smiling anymore. He said, “Get out! If you don’t, I’m gonna shoot!” He took out a gun and fired a shot into the air.

We got out of the vehicle. What else could we do? They took us into a building to a tiny room. There were these wooden pallets and dirty mattresses of unknown origin on the floor. In the middle of the night two of these so-called guards came to us. Drunk. One said to me and another girl, “Come out.”

Naturally, they forced us out of the room. They led us to a room where they had been drinking. They were looking for sex. We refused, of course, but they beat us up, tied us up and did what they wanted.

It felt like being crushed, like you didn’t exist anymore. You’re not you, you’re nobody.

They told us, “You still have to work off what we paid for you.” The next day we were taken to the work site. It was just a basement, which turned out to be an underground fake vodka distillery. Our task was to bottle the vodka, which they were producing, to stick on the labels.

They didn’t even give us a minute to sit down, they were almost over us with whips. “Quicker and quicker.” We waited in terror until the end of working day, for night to come. Because they could come at any time and take us away, which would be putting it lightly.

I ended up just saying, “Give me vodka.” So that I didn’t feel anything.

We were hitchhiking. The trip back took three days, two nights of which we spent in the woods. Fortunately, we met some good, kind people who helped us cross the border, and we reached Ukraine. Then we travelled back home by commuter trains.

As told to documentary makers at MTV Exit.