“If a Slave Tries to Run Away, They Are Chained”: How Slaves in Ukraine Collect Watermelons and Alms in the 21st Century

Translated by Ollie Richardson & Angelina Siard



In Ukraine the number of cases of human trafficking and slavery increased by more than twofold. This is indicated by the statistics of the State prosecutor.

“Strana” found out who is sold into slavery and why, and how dealers of live goods work in Ukraine.

An explosive growth in human trafficking cases

In 2014, in the reports of the Prosecutor-General’s Office 118 criminal proceedings initiated under Article 149 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine – human trafficking or other illegal transactions concerning humans – were recorded. In 2016, the number of the same crimes remained at the same level – 114 criminal proceedings, 45 of them were brought to the indictment stage. But in 2017, judging by the annual report, there was a real explosion in the slave trade – 340 criminal proceedings were initiated, 97 of which were brought to trial with an indictment.

However, the statistics in the Prosecutor-General’s reports are only the top of the iceberg. According to most criminologists, the real crime is 3-5 times more than the registered one. I.e., the 340 registered cases of human trafficking should be multiplied by five.

Water-melon front

Not all crimes concerning the “slavery” 149th Article of the Criminal Code belong to a direct classic form of slavery – when people are sold and bought against their will, or subjected to exploitation. Recruiters of prostitutes for work abroad often fall under this article.

However, in Ukraine there are also real slave traders. The first category of them is recruiters of free labor. There is a special demand for agricultural slaves – in the spring and summer. Many Ukrainian farmers aren’t averse to attracting crews of agricultural slaves to harvesting.

In the summer the collection of water-melons begins in the Kherson and Nikolaev regions. It is interesting that the contact details of slaveholders – the owners of seasonal collectors of crops – are known to many farmers.

“There are several phone numbers, and when they are called it is always possible to reach an agreement so that at a certain time a team of collectors of water-melons can arrive to your field. We pay crew leaders for their work. In their crews vagrants work for kopeks and food. In fact, they are not even the crew leaders, but supervisors. They bring workers to the field, where they work from light until dark. If someone from the crew doesn’t implement the plan, they may be beaten up directly on the field. One of the crew leaders over a glass of tea told me that five crews of ten-twelve people work for him. The method is simple – they pick up alcoholics and bums from all over Ukraine, take away their documents, and at first give them something to eat and dress them up. Then, they are presented with a fait accompli – that the debt needs to be repaid. They take them out to the field and force them to work there. They are treated harshly for disobedience. If a slave runs away, they are caught and chained in the slaveholder’s shed,” admitted the Kherson farmer Aleksey Zavgorodny.

In the register of courts proceedings there is an entry that describes how foreign dealers in free labor recruited foreign slaves for Ukraine – for work at a stone pit. Slaves were recruited by their compatriots in Pakistan.

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After this it is an old scheme: the documents of foreigners were taken away, they were transported to the settlement of Chopovichi in the Zhytomyr region, where Pakistanis worked for several months in a workshop for processing natural stone. Of course, payment for labor was at the lowest level – the victims of slave traders confirmed that the paid money was enough for modest transactions back home – $100 every two months. Pakistanis spent the rest on products – the food with which the owners of the workshop fed them wasn’t enough.

Beggar artels

Another direction of the slave trade in Ukraine is reducing people to slavery for collecting alms. And this is nearly a half of cases of slavery.

According to the sources of “Strana” in the police, it is mainly ethnic criminal groups who are engaged in the slave trade for a pittance.

“In the Kiev, Odessa, Nikolaev, and Kherson regions there are two-three stable groups that look all across Ukraine for bums, alcoholics, and simply disabled people needing money. People with a visible disability – with amputated extremities – are in special demand. The work of these groups can be seen by anyone – disabled slaves are transported in crowded places and on roads for collecting alms. Unfortunately, most slave traders use the local police as cover – 30% of their income goes to the police. Despite the scantiness of alms, in total these are quite large sums – hundreds of thousands of hryvnia per year. One disabled person in a wheelchair on average collects from 300 to 500 hryvnia in a day, from which 20-30 is leftover for them at best. As a rule, in beggar artels there are five-six disabled people with one supervisor. One group can have up to 15-20 beggar slave artels. Disabled people are stupefied with alcohol and made drug dependent. And the disabled have no place to disappear – they are needed by nobody. This is real slavery. To document and detain such slaveholders is extremely difficult – their victims extremely seldom give evidence against their owners. Slaves are psychologically squashed and have constant ‘Stockholm syndrome’ – they consider that they are obliged by life to the owners of beggar artels,” affirms the employee of the Kiev department of combatting crimes connected with human trafficking Viktor D.

It is interesting that the popularity of “beggar” slaveholding is confirmed by dozens of judicial proceedings. Besides Ukraine, slaveholders lease their slaves to partners from abroad. In fact, nothing changes the destiny of slaves, even if they work in Russia or Europe – the methods of psychological conditioning are the same: beatings, accustoming to drinking, and coercion to the use of drugs.

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Homeless, but physically healthy Ukrainians often find themselves in labor slavery in quite specific places. For example, at the city garbage heaps. In 2017, a 5-year prison sentence was given to the head of a group of slaveholders who forced people to work in a workshop that processed garbage in the village Tishkovichi in the Volyn region. As “Strana” found out, the fact that slaves were used at this garbage dump was known by both local authorities and law enforcement bodies.

Cover for thieves, and the police

According to the criminal boss from Odessa “A”, Ukrainian slave traders work “independently”, but use the informal protection of both law enforcement bodies and leaders of the underworld.

“Cops were never averse to give such cover – for the trading of beggars, bums, and prostitutes, and sending them abroad – they were always paid for such affairs. And they are being paid also now. According to human concepts (the ones of thieves) it was always considered that receiving a payout from prostitution and vagrants is undignified. But recently many authoritative bodies started protecting and receiving a cut from traders of prostitutes and beggar artels. This is big money – up to one million hryvnia per year. In total, across Ukraine hundreds of beggar slave crews work. Recruiters of prostitutes also pay into a common fund, even though it isn’t advertised. Nobody controls them, their role is to hand over a cut for the common fund. Of course, there are those who work independently. But such people are fewer and fewer – all slaveholders pay the cops and thieves,” admitted the representative of the criminal world.

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