Since the start of February, there’s been more coverage coming across the mainstream wires of the plight of migrant workers in Russia, who experience poor working conditions, xenophobia and low wages, much of which are sent back to their families in their home countries. Russian remittances (money sent home) prop up more than one Central Asian economy, and Russia could benefit from the influx of workers to plug gaps in the labor market. However, due to a strong nationalist movement and a slowing economy in recent years, immigration issues have become increasingly divisive and measures to control the flow of immigrants are ever more popular with Russians.
According to RFE/RL, there are between 10-12 million migrant workers in Russia, the majority of whom work in the shadow economy. Foreign Policy, Human Rights Watch and EurasiaNet have all commented in recent weeks on the worsening situation for these migrants. A quick round-up of those stories follows
A quick overview of the issue from RFE/RL: This is a good starting point to understand the scale and depth of the problem.
“‘Every year it becomes harder,’ Takhirov says. ‘It used to be easy to find work quickly — you didn’t need any documents or anything. But nowadays you fill out all the documents and then they still deceive you and throw you out all the same. There is so much deceit everywhere.’ That deceit includes things like nonpayment of wages, exorbitant bribes to obtain work permits, and arbitrary detentions by police.”
Foreign Policy’s Anna Nemtsova offers a visceral look at the issue, including the violent measures employed by right-wing nationalist movements. Most worrying, it was President Putin himself who called on the masses to form ‘patrol groups’ to help the federal government crack down on immigration. However, as this article from Syracuse’s Impunity Watch points out, the Russian government claims they screen everyone involved in this volunteer force so that aggressive nationalists aren’t employed. Here, have some salt to take that with.
A quick quote from Nemtsova’s well-written article: ”
The “People’s Patrols” proposal is part of a package of other Soviet-style regulations tightening rules requiring police registration at certain addresses and an anti-gay propaganda law. “This is not the revival of patriotism, but a revival of nationalism, as clearly patrols will target a concrete enemy: particular ethnic groups,” said Alexander Verkhovsky, the director of the Sova Center, a group that monitors xenophobia and ethnic violence. The latest Sova survey describes almost 200 cases of attacks apparently motivated by xenophobia. The group’s experts say that there is clear evidence of a trend for the worse.”
EurasiaNet’s posting by Genesee Keevil looks at the conditions experienced by the workers, including interviews with migrant workers and their families back in their home countries. Her post also includes the heartbreaking stories from women in Tajikistan whose husbands leave for Russia, don’t return and the much-needed remittances stop coming, either because they don’t care, are killed or simply can’t get back. Her first line captures the bleakness of the situation very clearly and simply: “Each day an average of three Tajiks return from Russia in simple wooden coffins. They are the victims of racist attacks, police brutality, dangerous working conditions and unsafe housing.”
Finally, Human Rights Watch recently put out a report discussing working conditions for migrant workers specific to the problems surrounding the Sochi Olympics in 2014. Putin’s made it very clear that he is heavily invested in these Olympics going off perfectly and using them to demonstrate Russia’s international prowess and capability. However, as other CES posts have demonstrated, there is definitely a seething shadow economy based on exploitation accompanying the Games:
“All migrant workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Sochi said that they worked long hours with very few days off. Work sites maintained a system of two 12-hour shifts. Workers most often said they worked from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. or from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., with a one-hour break for meals and for changing into and out of work gear. They typically worked seven days a week, with just one day off every two weeks, for long stretches. Russian law specifies a 40-hour work week, overtime pay, and at least one day off per week.”
All of this to say that the situation for immigrants in Russia is clearly deteriorating but there is little to no hope for any changes in the immediate future. Migrant workers feel they have little choice other than to look to Russia for economic opportunity, even at the expense of their rights and dignity. Putin’s concessions to nationalist politics, embodied by the creation of volunteer anti-immigration patrols have exacerbated already-poor conditions for workers.