For weeks on end, their tedious routine stayed the same: Wake up at 4:30 a.m., drink a cup of coffee and set out on foot to make the 17-kilometer (10.5-mile) trip to work at the free economic zone in the Lithuanian port city of Klaipeda. There and back, the trek takes nearly three hours. After finishing a long shift around 9:30 p.m., the migrant workers return to the two tiny rooms they rent in a hostel for an exorbitant price. The locals, after all, are wary of providing lodging to foreigners. Exhausted from a hard day's work, the laborers want only to lie down for a few hours of sleep before the wail of the alarm clock signals that it's time to do it all over again.
"We don't even want to eat after the long day. The pot full of soup sits untouched on the table. One of us has already hit the sack, and the others would rather have a smoke than eat," says Oleg Tsoma, a 51-year-old Ukrainian welder. Once he cherished the dream of earning a fortune in Lithuania, but instead he ended up living hand to mouth, cursing his unscrupulous employers.
Living with Oleg are Aleksandr Kovtiushenko, 30, and Viktor Borisenko, 40, both of whom came to Lithuania from the same Ukrainian city of Krivoy Rog. Though the three men represent only a tiny percentage of over 11,000 Ukrainian workers in Lithuania who have received work permits from the Lithuanian Labor Exchange, they share the same plight with many of their peers.
Duped and Stranded
Until mid-2016, Oleg worked as a welder at a metallurgical factory in Krivoy Rog, but abundant advertisements that promised high-paying jobs in the Polish and Lithuanian construction sectors lured him away from home. Lithuania seemed particularly enticing: According to the country's official statistics, the average net salary during the first quarter of 2017 was 595 euros ($704). Back in Ukraine, it was about only 150 euros ($177).
Assured by Vygintas, a mysterious representative from a Lithuanian registry firm that specializes in employing workers from Ukraine and Belarus, that he would be earning Lithuanian wages, Oleg packed up his things and hopped on a Vilnius-bound bus. Once he got there, he and several other men were temporarily housed in the sports hall of a derelict school with the reassurance that they would start work "in a day or so."
But as the days passed with no job in sight, the Ukrainians became increasingly uneasy.
After a week of idleness, the men were finally taken to Klaipeda. At first, they got temporary jobs at a metal construction assembly factory, but after a week that work ended, and each man received only 20 of the 200 euros that were promised. The business, as it turns out, was struggling and eventually shut its doors.
Unable to recover their wages, the Ukrainians threatened to report Vygintas and the factory's managers to the police and State Labor Inspectorate (VDI). Marius Urbonas, the director of JSC Bimater, the Lithuanian registry firm that the workers relied on, doesn't deny that he owes them money. But he blames Vygintas, who he says cannot be "completely trusted." When the Ukrainians aggressively demanded their pay one day, company officials threatened to force them to work for no money or food at all.
"The Lithuanians treated us like slaves, and their disdain towards us grew," Oleg insisted.
Amid mounting negative publicity, JSC Bimater eventually closed. But its owners simply started a new company, JSC Perela, with the same goal: to hire Ukrainians to meet the demands of a labor-hungry market in Lithuania. It now competes with more than 20 similar websites that cater to Ukrainians and Belarusians in Lithuania.
Still unpaid, Oleg filed a complaint with the Klaipeda branch of the VDI, which in turn applied to the court system to exact the wages from his employer. A local judge ruled in Oleg's favor, ordering the company to pay him 1,800 euros ($2,100). Actually retrieving the money, however, won't be easy, he said.
"I have to travel to Plunge, a rural town 50 kilometers from Klaipeda, to see a local bailiff. I can't do this at the moment as I've only got a handful of coins rattling in my pockets. Besides, I heard the metallurgical company I worked for has filed for bankruptcy. The numbers of those duped is way higher, in the hundreds and hundreds I'd say."
According to Oleg, most return home with empty pockets and a bitter grudge; they rarely seek justice. "This is how the majority of my fellow Ukrainians are. Instead of informing the local authorities, they call their families, who wade deeper into debt to help out their husbands and fathers stranded in Lithuania." He waves toward Aleksandr in the next room.
"I didn't earn a single penny during the last two months," Aleksandr said. "I was supposed to make money, but my wife had to borrow 200 euros and send it to me so that I don't starve here. Like the others, I'm being fed only with the promise (of pay)," he said, sounding distressed. Back home, he has an unemployed wife and a small child to care for. Sitting in front of me, he looks much older than 30.
A Difficult Problem to Solve
"The first signs (of the deception and exploitation of Ukrainian workers) reached us last year, and today we see a new trend, the ongoing trade in Ukrainians," claims Gediminas Noreika, the deputy head of the VDI's Law Division. But official statistics don't reflect this phenomenon. Neither the Lithuanian Prosecutor General's Office nor the Interior Ministry break down the available numbers on human trafficking and exploitation according to the victims' country of origin. "The last thing Lithuania wants is to be notorious as a human trafficking country," an Interior Ministry source said on the condition of anonymity.
According to the public records available on the ministry's website, officials conducted 38 pretrial investigations on human trafficking in 2014 in which they recognized 47 people as victims. In 2015, they conducted 27 pretrial investigations involving 62 victims. Last year, the figures stood at 29 investigations and 45 victims.
Elena Martinoniene, the head of the Communications Department of the Prosecutor General's Office, emphasized how complicated investigations regarding human trafficking and exploitation can get. "The prosecutors working with cases of this type discern these nuances: legally qualifying as such crimes and the proper gathering of evidence. There are also issues in identifying whether the individual is the victim or an accomplice in the crime," she pointed out. "Last but not least, this illicit activity is relatively new in Lithuania, therefore we don't always have the correct methodology as to how to proceed with investigations of this type."
Perhaps because of these intricacies, the case that Klaipeda prosecutors opened to look into Oleg's complaint has turned up little.
"The investigation is still underway and the current charges relate to deceptive accounting. So far, nobody has been charged in the case," said Igne Rotautaite, the spokeswoman for the Klaipeda affiliate of the Prosecutor General's Office. Oleg snickered disdainfully at the prosecutor's conclusions, asking, "This is ridiculous, isn't it?" Though he recorded the threatening conversation he had with JSC Bimater's representative and gave the audio file to the police, the evidence hasn't received any attention. Neither have the findings of a lawyer from the VDI's Klaipeda branch assigned to investigate the case. "His case clearly entailed what the Lithuanian law on human trafficking and exploitation stipulates," the lawyer pointed out, on the condition of anonymity. Yet when he submitted his findings to the Klaipeda police, his bosses reproached him for causing problems.
The disobedience cost him his job.
Meanwhile, the police investigator who worked on Oleg's case dismissed the charges of human trafficking and exploitation, arguing that the Ukrainian workers had not been held in captivity and therefore had no basis for more serious accusations.
When I asked the men whether they consider themselves victims of human trafficking, they were baffled.
Oleg nudged Viktor. "Hey, ... how do you see it?"
"That we are the victims of exploitation, there's no doubt. And we were victims of human trafficking when the (representative) from Bimater threatened to take us handcuffed to the woods and enslave us," he replied calmly. But Viktor's eyes, perhaps from exhaustion, watered as he spoke. "Sometimes we joke and say that the Lithuanians, who were victims of human trafficking and exploitation themselves when the European Union opened up the borders for them, have now turned into merciless exploiters themselves," he quipped with a bleak grin.
A New Beginning
In August, fate soon brought Oleg and his companions to JSC Stavys, a construction company owned by Ihor Sliusarchiuk, a Ukrainian whom they had met in a Lithuanian refugee center in 2013. After Ukrainian authorities expropriated his assets, worth 9 million euros, he fled to Lithuania to seek political asylum.
"After we heard that he's opened his own construction factory in Klaipeda, we went to see him and asked for work. He treats us very well," Oleg said. He and his fellow workers have not received their first paycheck yet, but they are optimistic. Moreover, they have already made some friends in Lithuania who reached out when they needed it most.
One of them is Kristina Misiniene, the head of Caritas' Assistance to the Victims of Prostitution and Human Trafficking program, who told me:
"Unfortunately, we have rising numbers of Ukrainians who become the victims of deception. A section of Lithuanian society befriends Ukrainians and helps them genuinely. The other, however, driven by insatiable greed, cheats, abuses and exploits them. It's a shame that we're becoming the victimizers of our near neighbors."
"If it wasn't for Caritas' aid, we'd be starving here," Oleg repeated.
Karolis Zibas, the head of a Lithuanian nongovernmental organization, also notes that Ukrainians are increasingly falling prey to human traffickers.
"The Nordic countries have ombudsmen who supervise the various problems connected with human trafficking, and the United Kingdom employs officials to tackle modern slavery. In Lithuania, we have none. Unlike in these other countries, Lithuania has still not addressed this scourge."
"That in the United Kingdom, Lithuania falls within the first 10 countries from which the highest number of victims of human trade arrive clearly shows that Lithuania overlooks the problem," he added. Even more Ukrainians would be in the same predicament if employment procedures were simpler. In Lithuania it takes a few months to process the appropriate paperwork, whereas in Poland, it takes a week; in Estonia, it takes only two days.
"The shorter the period, the less the people were exposed to vulnerabilities," noted Danas Arlauskas, the head of Lithuania's Business Employers' Confederation. "Lithuania is an emerging Eastern European market economy, and we see some negative market-related phenomena within it, but the statistics (on human trafficking and exploitation) are not extraordinary."
If the plight of Ukrainian workers in Lithuania is not dealt with now, it will get only worse. Since the European Union's visa-free system for Ukrainian citizens took effect on Jan. 1, Lithuania has been inundated with applications for work permits. As of Oct. 3, Ukrainians accounted for 1,958 of the 3,068 requests the country had received. According to the Lithuanian Labor Exchange, they accounted for a whopping 54 percent of all work permits issued last year, while Belarusians came in second at 35 percent and Moldovan and Russian citizens trailed with 3 percent apiece.
And indeed, Sliusarchiuk — the onetime Ukrainian millionaire who now owns JCS Stavys — isn't the only one who can find success in Lithuania. Many ordinary Ukrainians have carved out a respectable living there, especially in the long-haul transportation sector. At the Kedainiai-based Transporto Vystymo Grupe, 110 of the company's 260 drivers are from Ukraine and Belarus; at Furitas, another transport company nearby, 40 of the firm's 48 drivers are from the same countries. And a majority of the 500 employees at JSC Vlantana, a trucking firm operating out of Klaipeda, are Ukrainian.
Upon hearing these promising figures, Oleg shot back, "I don't know any happy Ukrainians in Lithuania." But he quickly cheered up a few days later when JSC Stavys gave him his first paycheck, paid in full.