Professor Mary Buckley, Governing Body Fellow at Hughes Hall Cambridge, speaks to CUP about her motivation, research and writing process for her new book The Politics of Unfree Labour in Russia: Human Trafficking and Labour Migration.  She has taught Soviet and post-Soviet politics and society in Edinburgh and London in the UK and enjoyed visiting research affiliations in the USA and Russia.


Q: Why did you decide to write a book on human trafficking and unfree labour?
A: When I was reading the Russian press in the early 2000s, I noticed an increasing number of articles across different newspapers about the human trafficking of girls and women out of the Russian Federation into prostitution in many other countries. So, I began to collect them.

Q: What did they tell you?
A: Some newspapers told rather sensational stories and some gave terse statistical estimates about the thousands affected. Others presented as many facts as their journalists had managed to gather about what was happening inside Russia in the process of recruitment, then in transit and finally in countries of destination. Some articles reported the results of academic research by Russian scholars who were looking into human trafficking after the collapse of the Soviet state, others quoted those who had been trapped in prostitution in a range of other countries and who had managed to return to Russia. Still others quoted politicians, those in non-governmental organisations and also some officers in the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) who were calling for anti-trafficking legislation.

Q: So you began by tracing how the Russian press was covering this topic?
A: Yes, that is right. Even though some topics are not necessarily openly discussed in the Russian press or on television, many are covered and you can learn of lot about Russia by reading its newspapers, seeing what it topical and noting what journalists, politicians, policy makers and academics are saying. You can identify different perspectives, priorities and recommendations and also the silences.

Q: Where did this lead you next?
A: I decided it was important to talk to as many Russians as I could in order to see how the political system was handling the problem. Human trafficking is a global issue and a challenge for all states of the world. So, I went to Moscow and St Petersburg and met people who were seriously interested in examining this issue – such as the academic Elena Tiuriukanova in Moscow and psychologist Natalia Khodyreva in Petersburg – as well as others in relevant non-governmental organisations. I heard stories about how the Legislation Committee of the State Duma had done a lot of work in preparing necessary legislation to criminalise human trafficking and had consulted quite widely across ministries, NGOs and academia. One chapter of the book draws on these interviews and presents the various pressures on the state to adopt fresh legislation. It also explains why the first bill that came out of the Legislation Committee did not pass in the parliament and shows how finally in 2003 the Criminal Code was amended, bringing in Articles 127.1 and 127.2 on human trafficking and slavery. These amendments really needed President Putin’s eventual support and the chapter shows why. It also quotes various Russian reflections on this process of agenda-setting to give a flavour of what happened and the actions and emotions involved.

Q: Having learnt about the politics of putting human trafficking on official agendas, where did your thinking then go?
A: By then I was curious to know how much the public knew about human trafficking – was it evident to them, how hidden was it and were they actually digesting the articles in the press. Indeed, how many different views and reactions did members of the public have about human trafficking? Not all Russians hold identical views, as in globally the case for citizens in all states of the world, and as someone with an interest in Russia, I just wondered how the social fabric was responding.

Q: How did you find that out?
A: I liaised with Russia’s independent pollsters at the Levada Centre and in 2007 we ran a nationwide public opinion poll with eight questions and also two focus groups. The aim was to adopt complementary methodologies. The results were published in the journal Europe-Asia Studies back in 2009 and are also given selectively in this book.

Q: But you did not stop your research there?
A: No, I was not ready to write a book then as many of my research findings were already being published in journals and anthologies. Instead, I wanted to do another public opinion survey to track attitudes over time and also to talk to experts about the impact that the new amendments in the Criminal Code were having on society. The aim was to present a fuller picture across a few years. In 2014 we ran another survey and two more focus groups, seven years after the first.

Q: Then your work took a new direction.
A: Yes, it became increasingly clear to me from the Russian press that as the years passed, there were fewer articles on girls and women being trafficked out and an increasing number on men either being trafficked into Russia or arriving quite legally but still ending up in labour situations of varying degrees of exploitation. Then a third pattern became visible in the press of some Russians enduring similar fate inside their own country too, such as in brick works in Dagestan.

Q: So, what did you do with this trend?
A: Firstly, I did another trawl of the press to present a range of stories about men in construction work, on farms, in brick works and in other situations. I mainly concentrated on stories about Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz. I should stress, however, that not all Central Asians end up in difficult work predicaments but instead are satisfied with the jobs that they find. In fact, many Central Asians rely on work in Russia to sustain family budgets back home. In their countries of origin, wages are lower than in Russia and some may have been unemployed there, making for push factors out. So, one chapter gives a range of stories from the press and from informative press releases from the MVD. I should add that some Central Asian women may also find themselves in prostitution inside Russia – something which they had not been expecting, nor wanted. Likewise, some Russian women have been deceived and trafficked from poorer regions of Russia into prostitution in cities elsewhere in the country.

Secondly, in the second opinion poll which repeated some of the questions from the first one about human trafficking out of Russia, we included two fresh questions on attitudes to migrant labourers. We also ran two new focus groups in which half of the questions were still on human trafficking out of Russia, but now half were newly on attitudes about incoming labour migrants. Russia in not alone in the world in having some citizens and politicians with critical views about migrant workers from other states and my aim was merely to document the range of prevailing views. Many experts in Russia, however, are trying hard to make work life better for labour migrants and so another chapter draws on interviews with key figures in different organisations, looking at their reaction to policies and their recommendations for improvements. An overview of changes in migration policies from 2002 to early 2017 sets the context. In fact, changes in policy are ongoing as Russia grapples, like many states today, with questions of how best to proceed, sparking further discussion and competing views.

Q: You could sum up and say that your book looks at the results of labour flows out of Russia, into it and also within it since the collapse of the Soviet state up to the recent past?
A: Yes, I look at the significance of flows in three directions that result in unfree labour – out of Russia, into the country and within it. That is how the book shaped over time, inductively and almost organically, as developments occurred and issues unfolded. I also included one short history chapter which goes back to the ninth century with a quick overview of types of unfree labour in slavery, serfdom, incarceration and during collectivisation with a focus on different categories of ‘unfree labour’ as an umbrella concept. Of course, millions of others over the years travelling in these three directions find happy work situations. This book, by contrast, looks at the underbelly.

Q: How does the material in your book link to similar issues in other states?
A: Let’s take the UK. As I was finishing the book, the topic of human trafficking was just beginning to be more visible in the British press as the police began to talk more about having to tackle unfree labour in fields, in forced prostitution, in domestic work, in nail bars and in the cultivation of cannabis. In 2017 the British press reported on pop-up brothels that were appearing in holiday lets in Newquay and Swindon, staying for a short time, then quickly moving on. Many of the women trapped in them were from Eastern Europe. Other nationalities exploited in unfree labour situations in Britain include citizens of Romania, Nigeria, Vietnam and other states. One of the important lessons from Russia is that although legislation is a necessary first step, its implementation does not automatically follow successfully. This often requires time-consuming and complex work for law enforcement officers and a strong commitment to collect evidence that may be very hard to acquire.

Q: How would you sum up your approach to the study of human trafficking into unfree labour situations?
A: By necessity, it is interdisciplinary. It draws on history, politics, economics, geography, policy, law, social attitudes, expert opinion, policing and global factors. Multiple factors interact and help to shape the social and political realities in which citizens across the centuries and decades in different countries find themselves. These multiple factors and contexts also shape the opportunities for crime and the nature of human rights abuses. They raise questions too about social justice, equality and ethics.

For free access to the introduction of The Politics of Unfree Labour in Russia please click HERE.

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