Women in the shuttle trade remain trapped in inequality

  • October 13, 2015
Women in the shuttle trade remain trapped in inequality

In many societies across the world it is men who are in a position of power politically, economically and socially, while women stay in the background assisting and complementing men at best. Because of this, many people, especially in developed Western societies, think that the only sure way of challenging gender inequality is for women to claim male roles. But does this theoretical strategy work in reality? After the collapse of the Soviet Union a number of post-Communist countries witnessed the boom of Shuttle Trading. The Shuttle Trade, also known as Suitcase Trading, is a circular cross-border trade carried out by individuals who avoid taxes by not registering as a business organisation. The Shuttle Trade was often the only provider of mass consumption goods in a society where neither a failing state nor a failed market could supply citizens. In the beginning of the evolution of the Suitcase Trade the main sites for selling Suitcase Trade goods in the countries of the former Soviet Union were open-air markets. These were the first places where capitalism was practised and also the first places where a capitalist consumerist culture developed. The most popular supplier side country for the Shuttle Trade is Turkey thanks to the cheap, but decent quality textiles and leather goods it produces.

The Shuttle Trade emerged as a response of the post-Soviet people to the economic hardships that they encountered after the collapse of the Soviet Union and it was largely supported by economic liberalisation in supply side countries. To put this into perspective, in the 1990s the imports of suitcase traders accounted for almost 33 per cent of all imported goods in Russia while by the mid 2000s, about 20 per cent of all retail trade in Russia was carried out by small-scale retailers in open-air markets. When the legal market was incapable of providing people with basic goods and when there were not enough jobs available, the Suitcase Trade became not only a type of crisis entrepreneurship and an act of resistance to economic marginalisation, but also as an opportunity for people to participate in the creation of capitalism and globalisation “from below”. Shuttle traders transport goods to their home states in their personal suitcases (that is where the name of this business comes from), by cargo carriers or via specialised transfer companies, all of which are tax-avoiding strategies. This tax avoidance is a crucial characteristic of the Suitcase Trade: it moves the activity to an illegal realm where the traders can avoid costly state regulations and penalties; but once they step into this shadowy area, the law can no longer used to protect buyers or sellers. The suitcase traders are on their own. This quickly results in a situation where only the most resourceful and canny traders can stay afloat. To help them operate in this chaotic environment the shuttle traders started a counter movement to classical impersonal capitalism which is based mainly on efficiency.

The suitcase traders try to find support in social connections and networks, which normally are weakened by the transition to capitalism and the development of free market economies. They try to interact with their suppliers outside the strictly professional realm by going out for dinners together and by forming sometimes very close personal ties. Remarkably, these social connections are almost entirely between men and women. On the post-Soviet side the Shuttle Trade is mostly practised by women, while in the supply countries it is predominantly a male business. One of the reasons for this was that in the Soviet countries, men were perceived as breadwinners and status bearers in their families while women were always in the background despite their historically active participation in the labour market. Since women had to both work and be caring and attentive mothers and wives, they would often opt for low-level jobs since working part-time was not possible in the Soviet Union. This, clearly, prevented them from growing professionally and investing in their careers. Men received all the credit, while women had to carry out the less glorious task of taking care of their families both in financial terms, but also through preserving the high social status of their partners. Being a semi-legal business, the Shuttle Trade was seen as unworthy of men; plus, after the collapse of the USSR, many men could still be formally employed, even though they were not usually paid any wages. Even without any financial rewards, this allowed men to maintain their (often very high) professional positions. From their families’ perspective, having a rocket engineer in the house was seen as prestigious even though he might not have been paid for years. The only way to survive economically was for women to sacrifice their own social status and to start travelling abroad to buy goods.

The supply side of the suitcase trade is mostly represented by men partly because trade in the supply countries is seen as a male business, but partly also because it is easier for male traders to establish good professional relationships with the shuttle traders with the added spice of gender relations thrown in. Being perceived as being very attractive, Slavic shuttle traders often relied on their sexuality to facilitate business transactions with their suppliers. A little bit of flirting, some sex or more permanent, serious relationships with suppliers could ensure the trust they needed to circumvent the absence of legal contracts. Research shows that more than 90 per cent of people in the Shuttle Trade have used their charms to oil their business transactions. There are many short-term romances and also some long-term romantic and business partnerships between shuttlers and store owners in the source countries. Some have lost money because sexuality is a tool which can be skillfully used for financial profits. Nevertheless, people continue to use it as an alternative to legal contracts and it remains one of the most efficient strategies to seal business deals in the Shuttle Trade. However, it meant women shuttlers were engaged in a dangerous game which tended to reinforce existing inequalities and gave men even more power. Instead of being perceived as equal business partners in supply countries and the sole breadwinners at home, these women were pushed back into a world where sexuality is provided to men who ultimately hold economic and social power.

Women’s bodies and emotions are used as currency, which often proves more valuable and reliable than money. Women hardly ever received any acknowledgement for re-igniting the crumbling consumer good markets in the post-Soviet states and the long-dead labour market. Men in the families of shuttle traders often continued being unemployed or only technically employed without a salary, not feeling any need to find alternative sources of income for their families. Even though women did find ways to put food on their families’ tables and save the social position of their partners, they have not been able to change the pre-existing gender imbalances which pushed them into the grey economy in the first place. The case of Shuttle Trade clearly shows us that strong women in patriarchal cultures can be so deeply entrapped in gender inequalities that even when they are forced by circumstances to take over male roles as breadwinners, these still merely reinforce their traditional marginalisation.

*Darja Irdam [2012] is doing a PhD in Sociology.

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