How Capitalism Contributes to Human Trafficking in Russia Today


The contemporary social problem I am interested in accounting for is human trafficking. This modern-day slave trade is currently going on right under our noses globally; both in developed and so-called ‘undeveloped’ countries. Because of its necessarily hidden nature, it’s difficult to tell exactly how many people are affected by it. However, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that at any one time there are around 2.5 million people who have been trafficked, and are subject to sexual or labour exploitation, (Agathangelou, & L.H.M. Ling Researchers, 2003). It is a highly profitable business for those who run the show, making pimps and crime bosses large profits. Meanwhile, trafficked persons and their communities see little to no benefits, but must shoulder the blame and shame. Hundreds of years after slavery was abolished in most countries, and 175 years after the charity ‘Anti-Slavery International’ formed in 1839, it is a blight on humanity that this abhorrent practice still occurs today on such a large scale. This essay will argue that the rise of capitalism is a major causal factor of human trafficking in Russia today, through its ideologies which foster competition, shadow markets as well as transnational networks that cause simultaneous rises in criminal activities and economic growth.

As cited in United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime and the Protocols thereto United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, ‘the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons’ defines human trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation or the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs” (Article 3, UN, 2004). As with many social problems, it is the vulnerable that are most susceptible to being trafficked. Most are migrant workers searching for a better life free of poverty, where they are financially stable enough to send money back to their struggling families. Instead, they are stripped of their dignity and rights and forced to work gruelling hours in exchange for little to no money in often criminal or dangerous jobs.


Manipulative traffickers use many tricks to control migrants, which can include a brutal concoction of; drugs, violence, intimidation, blackmail, rape, fabricated (or real) debt to pay off, confiscating identification, along with total social isolation as a result of language barriers and their illegal immigrant status. On top of this, police and government may respond inadequately by deporting or jailing victims, especially if they are working in prostitution. They may even be corrupt, accepting bribes from pimps or ignoring appeals from victims and returning them to their abusers (Tiurukanova et al, 2006).

The causes of this modern day slave trade are many and complex. Some major ones include high demand for sex workers and limited voluntary supply, eased restrictions on international travel, ineffective or inconsistent laws regarding trafficking which frame trafficked people as criminals rather than victims, restrictive immigration policies that make smuggling a highly profitable business, and globalisation factors such as the rise of capitalism, rapid technological change and political liberalisation (Sakiko 2004). The main causal factor I will be analysing in this essay is the rise of capitalism, which according to James Fulcher, is the ‘investment of money in the expectation of making a profit’ (Fulcher, 2009, p2). Capital drives the modern day neo-liberal world order, which has an ideology of individualism, competitiveness and entrepreneurship. This forces companies into constant change, as they seek to beat or at least keep up with competition. (Fulcher, 2009). Driven largely by the collapse of communism and the spread of capitalist economic systems throughout the so-called Second and Third Worlds, economic globalisation has combined with communication and transport cost-reducing technological advances that have benefited many people’s lives in various ways (Koslowski, 2001.) As capitalist ideologies become the norm everywhere, trade is made more accessible for all levels of business, from MNCs to traffickers. Resulting from this interconnectedness of economic activities are increasing international migration and expansion of transnational crime (Koslowski, 2001).

Like the majority of modernising trends, capitalism is a double edged sword, with human trafficking as one of its negative side effects. In order for some people to reach the top of the heap, and for the greater good of the market, capitalism ideals implicitly require that the weakest or least skilled people be stepped over as cheap instruments of labour in order to sustain economic growth. Capitalism, therefore, exacerbates economic inequality, a significant cause of coercion as people become ‘survival migrants’ in desperate attempts to bridge the ‘ever-widening gap.’ (Chuang, 2006), (Tiurukanova et al, 2006).

An example of how the implementation of how capitalism can amplify the social problem of trafficking is the economic situation in Russia. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, dramatic economic changes have taken place in this formerly Communist country. As Russia transitioned to a capitalist western model, financial hardships increased in many communities as a result of financial crisis and shadow economies (Tiurukanov et al, 2006). Over 120 million people in Eastern Europe earn less than $US4 per day, and where old Soviet economic systems have been disrupted or abandoned, there had been ‘economic contraction and hyperinflation,’ obliterating people’s savings and security. This environment of poverty, unemployment, inflation and lack of a promising future made a transnational criminal network extremely fruitful in this newly independent state. (Hughes, 2000). The opening up of Russia’s economy simultaneously opened up a new pool of millions of potential sex workers for traffickers to recruit from. In the last decade (as of 2000), hundreds of thousands of women have been trafficked from Central and Eastern Europe and the republics of the former Soviet Union into prostitution throughout the world, with Russian women in over 50 countries working as prostitutes because of trafficking (Hughes, 2000).


According to Tiurukanova, E.V. and the Institute for Urban Economics for the UN/IOM Working Group on “Trafficking in Human Beings”, polarisation in living standards, as well as economic opportunities between countries is the main force driving modern day migration (2006), an inequality caused by the capitalist world market. Wages in the wealthiest nations are 130 times higher than in the poorest ones, and between 30-50 times higher in industrialised countries than in Russia. Monthly wage also varies significantly between countries of the former USSR; the best off being Russia, with US$202, and the lowest end of the spectrum being US$17 in Tajikstan (Tiurukanova et al, 2006). Traffickers often don’t need to kidnap people, but simply pose as pathways to a ‘better life,’ promising work and the required documents to travel across the border, and then selling them to an ‘employer’. The root cause of mass human exploitation is therefore not gaps in the law or a lack of legal awareness amongst Russian population (although these are definitely contributing factors), but limited economic opportunity and exploitation under conditions of poverty (Agathangelou & L.H.M. Ling Researchers, 2003).

As workers in Russia began to compete in a wider market with developed countries, job insecurity increased with the threat of restructuring and change in demand. Wealthy and poor countries alike have weakened worker dismissal laws, resulting in a highly competitive workforce (Sakiko, 2004). Some businesses who can’t keep up with the constant up-skilling and change needed to compete predictably go under, leaving their employees with no job (Fulcher, 2009) and forcing them to find work in the informal economy, a sector which is of enormous scale in Russia. Even conservative estimates of the contribution this sector makes to the economy are around 22.4 percent of Gross National Product (GNP), down from 50% in 1995 (Hughes, 2000), (Tiurukanova et al, 2006). Previous to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the shadow economy was already a vital part of the market; supplying goods and services the state economy failed to provide. They were known about and even assisted by the government. However, following the collapse of state-run political and economic systems, existing shadow organisations filled the vacuum, operating totally unregulated. As the state could not pay people to do legitimate jobs, Russians necessarily took up work in the informal and often criminal economy, and making them prime targets for human traffickers who find it much easier to whisk someone away that will not be missed by a corporation, and will not find their dodgy job offers suspicious (Hughes, 2000).

Trafficking, just like other investment for profit ventures, is a capitalist enterprise that simply takes advantage of unstable economic conditions and a market for cheap labour, by exploiting people for financial gain.

As Russia liberalised their economy and began trading with the international community in a capitalist environment, they became subject to the same shrinking borders of space and time, as well as international demands that everyone else did. Criminals capitalised on these disappearing barriers between countries, and the economic powers of organised crime are now estimated at US $2 trillion a year, (Koslowski, 2001) rivalling MNCs. When it previously would’ve been cut off from economic globalisation, Russia was now subject to the 1994 Marrakech agreement; a big step in integrating world markets as trade barriers were reduced, liberalising economies overall. This was accompanied by rapid political transformations, including the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, where the free flow of ideas was finally allowed to Eastern Europeans and the former Soviet Union, affecting some 400 million people. (Sakiko, 2004). As the idea of travel becomes a plausible one, labour migration increases especially to developed economies where there is a demand for cheap labour (Tiurukanova, 2006).

To fix the multi-faceted problem of human trafficking, ‘ambulance at the bottom of the cliff’ solutions are not enough – although much improvement is needed in the area of victim identification and support. Instead, this economic problem requires at least a partly economic solution. One suggestion made by ITUC says NGOs should work together with trade unions to promote and protect their members/beneficiaries rights more effectively (ITUC, 2011). A problem created (at least in part) by a capitalist economy cannot be fixed without acknowledging the systems and ways of doing business that are responsible. Combining the resources of institutions and charities can change things at both the structural and social level.

Capitalism is what we have come to see as the normal way of doing business, and it is probably naive to say we should try to change this engrained mindset. However, to end the cruel practice of human trafficking, we must stop sacrificing the most vulnerable in society for globalisation, privatisation and to extend ‘the market’. The basic concept of capitalism that Fulcher describes as investment of money in expectation of making a profit is in itself not a bad thing (Fulcher, 2009). What becomes harmful is when becoming rich is the most important thing that people and nations strive for; when they are willing to trample anyone who gets in their way. In Russia, a nation was suddenly exposed to a market which preached that consumption equates to freedom and democracy, and instead its population became slaves to a volatile, unequal and exploitative market. The increase of human trafficking that developed along transnational lines was one effect of this environment, heralding the need for change at the structural level to combat the dangers of capitalism. Ideally capitalism should seek to make profits fairly, resulting in economic growth that is beneficial for all, not just a few elite business owners who have established a monopoly over the capitalist market.


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