CONSTRUCTION WORKERS REBUILDING THEIR LIVES AFTER EXPLOITATION

According to an IOM-commissioned survey, 84 per cent of Ukrainians have heard about human trafficking, but 54 per cent of those are sure this will never happen to them. The common opinion is that modern slavery, to a large extent, means sexual exploitation of young women, and that only vulnerable people in challenging living conditions can fall prey to criminals. However, IOM Ukraine’s case load proves different.

Borys* and Serhii* used to work with six of their friends as a cell tower maintenance crew. Several years ago, they had many contracts with different telecommunication companies and their business was booming. But with the start of the economic crisis, triggered by the conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014, their income dropped substantially. Trying to find job opportunities in Ukraine and abroad, Borys, the head of the crew, found an Internet announcement from a company looking for cell tower maintenance workers in Kazakhstan.  “The salary was advertised as a minimum of USD 1,500 a month, with it being paid after accomplishing each job, and the company also promised to cover accommodation and travel expenses,” Borys recalls.

As his co-workers also had to provide for their families, they decided to go to Kazakhstan together.  The trouble started almost immediately. When the date of the flight was confirmed, the company asked that they pay for their tickets and the transportation of their maintenance and safety equipment themselves, with reimbursement upon arrival.  Despite this, the men did not change their plan, borrowed money from relatives and friends, and went to Kazakhstan.

Upon arrival, they were given only very basic meals, lived in horrible conditions and worked  18 hours a day under strict surveillance.  They received no money, as their employers either promised to pay the salary ‘later’ or threatened them. After a week, the local supervisor demanded their passports ‘for registration’.  Understanding that they would be trapped, the men promised to do so in the morning and decided to run away. They abandoned some of their equipment and escaped at 4 a.m., pretending that they were going to the worksite.

As they had no money to buy tickets home to Ukraine, they pawned all the equipment that they managed to take with them. This left them with no equipment to do their jobs, and quite a bit of debt, when they returned home.

Men like Borys and Serhii have been prevailing among those assisted by IOM Ukraine’s counter-trafficking programme for several consecutive years. In 2017, men were over 60 per cent of victims of trafficking identified and reintegrated by IOM Ukraine.  An overwhelming majority (about 90%) of both male and female victims identified last year were trafficked for forced labour, with construction being the most dominant sector. 

 “Of the almost 7,500 victims of human trafficking identified by IOM Ukraine since 2007, over 3,000 were exploited in construction,” explained Dr. Thomas Lothar Weiss, Chief of Mission at IOM Ukraine.  “This is an industry where trafficked and exploited people are subjected to the most severe physical traumas. In many cases, they develop chronic diceases such as multiple spinal cord disorders or chronic kidney disease which significantly undermines their ability to earn a living as construction workers after they return home,” he added.

Since 2006, IOM Ukraine has been supporting people like Borys and Serhii by providing them with an opportunity to participate in the Economic Empowerment Programme in addition to medical, psycho-social rehabilitation and legal support also available from IOM. The programme trains trafficking survivors on business and career development and provides self-employment grants for those who develop and successfully defend a business plan. In October 2017, IOM signed a long-term partnership agreement with Robert Bosch Ltd in Ukraine which now allows IOM to procure high quality and durable power tools at whole sale prices for reintegrated victims of trafficking.

Upon return, Borys, Serhii and their fellow colleagues learned about IOM’s programme from a local NGO. After treatment at the IOM Medical Rehabilitation Centre in Kyiv, they enrolled in the IOM business training, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, and successfully defended their business plans. Both received Bosch power tools such as drills, perforators, polishing machines, electric screwdrivers, laser levels, among other much needed tools.

Borys continues working in the telecommunication industry and is currently a subcontractor for one of Ukraine’s mobile phone service providers.  Serhii decided to change his career, and now he specializes in both interior and exterior construction works. 

“Thanks to IOM I was able to replace most of the equipment that I had to leave in Kazakhstan while escaping exploitation,” said Borys. “After the experience I had, I appreciate the opportunity to work and be successful in my home country,” he added.  

*The names have been changed to protect privacy

Participation in IOM’s Economic Empowerment Programme allowed Borys to successfully continue his career in telecommunication 

 

Serhii provides full spectrum of refurbishment works on a “turn-key” basis with electric tools and equipment received from IOM