Economic crisis could send Russia’s labor migrants home

Big cities attract migrants across the world.

Big cities attract migrants across the world.

Jobs in low-paying industries are falling as Russia’s economy contracts, leaving many of the country’s vast numbers of migrants without work while still trying to support their families back home on remittances. RBTH spoke to several workers.

When Alhidin, a Tajik migrant, came to Moscow in March, he hoped that it would be business as usual. His long-time Moscow contacts promised him jobs in various country houses located outside the city.

But he didn’t expect that he would spend almost eight months collecting all the required paperwork to obtain a work permit. While cases like his are typical and together with worsening economic conditions have affected the low of migrants, they are still coming to Russia in large numbers.

Alhidin’s saga came to an end when he was unable to find work, despite obtaining a permit. His contacts said that they did not have money because of the harsh economic situation.

“I came because I need to feed a family, but I don’t have the patience to wait anymore,” said Alhidin, a modest-looking young man in his early thirties who was riding a Soviet-era bike to reach the potential clients in Moscow suburbs.

While the presence of labor migrants from Central Asian republics such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan is still visible in Moscow and other Russian cities, their numbers are decreasing.

”Many are returning to Moscow, because there are no jobs in Russia now,” said Behrouz bin Qader, a resident of the Tajik capital Dushanbe, but he added that the situation at home is hardly bright either because of high inflation.

One of the biggest issues is the economic crisis in Russia, which has hit many industries hard, including the construction sector, traditionally popular among migrants from Central Asia. The weaker ruble has also affected the salaries of these workers, who now send home half what they used to.

“I used to send home $1,000 last year, now it is only around $500,” said 37-year-old Emomali, who has a large family back home and has been working in Moscow since the mid-1990s.

Emomali rents an apartment with three other migrant workers and has to pay 15,000 rubles (around $300) per month for his expenses. This includes 4,000 rubles ($40) for a monthly work permit. This was bearable, he said, but only if work was available.
However, he has only a month in Russia and may soon be deported, because he has overstayed his visit. A deportation means a three-year entry ban, which is devastating: “Younger people might go to United States and Turkey, but Russian is the only language I speak, so I have no other choice,” he said.

Work permit complications

The military conflict in Ukraine has also influenced the situation indirectly. There are many refugees from eastern Ukraine who are taking the jobs once popular among the migrants. Despite this, Russian migration officials have tightened the rules for Ukrainian citizens, who were able to stay in Russia indefinitely before the conflict. Now they have only 120 days to legalize their status – but the measure doesn’t concern those who have escaped the conflict from the pro-Russian Donbass region in eastern Ukraine.

Federal Migration Service officials said that around 15-16 million foreign citizens come to Russia annually, 80 percent of whom are migrant workers from the CIS states. According to the World Bank Migration and Remittances report, released in April, Russia is one of the top five destinations for labor migrants, alongside the United States, Germany, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

According to data recently released by the Federal Migration Service, there are currently 966,789 migrant workers from Tajikistan legally in Russia, 16 percent lower than a year ago. The largest source of migrant workers in Russia is Uzbekistan, with 2 million people, but even so the number of Uzbeks is still 17 percent lower than in 2014.

Migrant workers sleeping in an abandoned 17th century house in Tverskoy boulevard. Source: Kirill Kallinikov / RIA Novosti

The situation is more or less similar in the Russian regions, which have suffered even more due to economic problems. The authorities in the Astrakhan Region, where the local economy is largely based on fish, say that the number of migrant workers is now 35 percent lower than last year. While economic conditions have played a major part in this decline, officials also said that it was hard for many of them to get the so-called labor license or individual work permits.

Konstantin Ramadanovsky, the head of the Federal Migration Service (FMS), is aware of the situation. He said recently during a Duma round-table that the high prices of the government services required to obtain work were a “deterring factor” to increasing the number of legal migrants: “The first factor is the high price of the work permit,” he said.

The Federal Migration Service now has plans to ease restrictions on work permits for migrant workers, which are currently valid only for three months. They have to be renewed within three days and employees have to submit a huge pile of documents every time. If the FMS proposals are adopted, work permits will be renewed automatically.

Everyone writes to the colonel

Among other factors is the high cost of Russian language exams and medical checkups, which foreign workers need to pass in order to obtain a permit. According to Romadanovsky, the price tag for the Russian language test can range from 5,000 rubles, or around $80, to almost 9,500 rubles ($160), depending on the region. The same goes for the cost of medical check-ups, which can cost from 2,000 to 8,000 rubles, again depending on the region.

However, the authorities claim that the higher prices, combined with the much stricter rules, have played their role in forcing more migrants to obey the law.

During a recent meeting of BRICS countries migration officials in Sochi, Deputy Federal Migration Service head Vadim Yakovenko said that the number of legally employed migrants has increased by a quarter.

“People have become more accurate,” Yakovenko was quoted by Interfax as saying. He added that more than 1.5 million labor migrants have been denied entry to Russia because of various violations since 2013.

Nevertheless, experts say that migrants will continue to come even in smaller numbers, since economic conditions in their own countries are much worse than in Russia. In Tajikistan half of the country’s GDP is based on foreign remissions from migrant workers.

“Economic conditions in Russia might be hard, but they are much worse in those countries from there they come from. There is also a big gap between earnings in their home countries and in Russia. This stimulates them to look for job in Russia,” Vladimir Mukomel, a senior migration expert at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow told RBTH.

However, as the website of the Tajik labor migrant movement reports, while Russia is still a place where Tajiks believe they can earn enough to build a future back home, they feel the good times are coming to an end.

The website cites several cases in which unscrupulous employers have refused to pay wages owed to migrant workers. One of them said that the company manager has declined to pay back salaries to 13 workers, owed for work done during the summer:

“He declined to pay and switched off his telephone, leaving workers without any means to live,” said a letter addressed to the movement’s head Karomat Sharipov, explaining that the company owed the workers over half a million rubles ($7,750).

A former Soviet military colonel, Sharipov uses his connections in Russia to persuade officials to pay back salaries. In Russia shaken by the crises, Sharipov is the Tajik workers last man standing. But he said that his only help is to alert prosecutors: “We can only act within the framework of the law,” he said.

For Some, Migration is Coming Home

Galiya Ibragimova

In July 2014, I decided to move from Uzbekistan, where I was born and raised, to Russia, the country my relatives had left in the 1930s, fleeing from hunger and Stalinist repression.

In part, this decision was influenced by reports that Moscow was encouraging Russians living abroad to return — and making it easier for those who wanted to do so, particularly those who spoke Russian and identified with Russian culture and mentality.

I easily fit that description. Although I am ethnically a Kazan Tatar, I knew Russian better than Tatar and consider it my native tongue.

As a student in a Russian-language school in the provincial town of Termez in southern Uzbekistan, I grew up reading the works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

After weighing all the pros and cons of such a move, I decided to take part in the Russian state program to assist the voluntary resettlement of compatriots living abroad. This program allows participants to obtain Russian citizenship as soon as possible — within three months.

I was more fortunate than that. I got my Russian passport in one month through a simplified procedure.

It did not take me long to make myself at home in Russia. The country has a lot that I can relate to; there are people here who speak the same language as me. I had no problems finding a job. The Russians treated me as their own. Many did not even suspect that I had arrived in the country recently.

When they found out, they were not surprised, knowing that there were many Russian-speaking compatriots leaving the former Soviet republics after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Sometimes I was asked questions like, “You came from Uzbekistan, but why don’t you wear a burqa?” Or, “Is there coffee in Uzbekistan and do they sell alcohol there?”

It did not offend me; I replied that Uzbekistan is a secular state where people drink both coffee and vodka, and even the most devout women do not wear a burqa.

For me, the main thing was that I felt really at home in Russia, and that I was able to return to my native land after many years of separation.

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