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"Jacks-in-the-box": Orenburg’s migrant workers

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Bordering Kazakhstan, Orenburg is a first destination for migrant workers from post-Soviet Central Asia. In her latest letter from the Russian Provinces, Elena Strelnikova considers the pluses and minuses of the visitors and how they integrate — or not — into the local society

Elena Strelnikova
2 June 2011

I have a friend who regularly takes a bag of old bric-a-brac to the rubbish tip. Every time, at the very last moment, her hand involuntarily reaches in to pull some of the things out (for some bizarre reason, it’s only at this last moment that it strikes her the things may have a use). My friend’s behaviour isn’t particularly unique, however. A generation of Soviet-born Russians find it difficult to part with old objects: never rare family heirlooms (for some reason they don't particularly treasure these), but unnecessary things like broken saucepans, moth-eaten carpets, broken bedsteads, chairs and cupboards and so. If you could only see, dear reader, what a store of such things my husband has! “But they could come in useful!” interjects my spouse, having read the words over my shoulder." I — "perhaps. Ten percent at a push." “And what's wrong with that?”

Orenburg region map

The places that thrifty Russians usually hoard all this rubbish is on their balconies, in storerooms and barns. There are lots of barns in the old centres of provincial cities and Orenburg is no exception. They are full of all kinds of unnecessary necessities and are usually built of highly inflammable material, so they burn easily. 

Often there are suspicions of arson. When there were three fires in our own courtyard, the neighbours were absolutely certain that someone was intent on clearing the land to build another shop, garage complex or some other profit-making enterprise. After the third fire, which burnt down 80 small barns, there was a meeting at which a housebuilding company proposed a completely non-commercial solution of clearing up the area and replacing the barns with a playground. A really good idea, you might think, but the locals simply howled: give us back our barns! We need them, like we need air, water and sunlight. There are elections coming up, so it's in no one's interest to get into an argument with a howling populace. The mayor's office granted unofficial permission for rebuilding these outbuildings, but stipulated that they had to comply with fire regulations. 

The Gasterbaiters

At that point the gasterbaiters appeared, like jacks from a jack-in-the-box, getting to work with a vengeance. They washed in the basement of the building and ate at the building site straight out of the cups and saucepans that had survived the fires. They never appeared to argue with each other (although their years in Russia had enabled them to acquire an almost perfect knowledge of our effing and blinding, which for most was the limit of their knowledge of Russian). 

This workforce came so cheap that Orenburgers from all the surrounding blocks of flats immediately struck up an acquaintance with the gastarbeiters and in a very short space of time had build themselves new garages, barns and cellars. There were no official land or labour contracts, but it'll take some time for the authorities to get round to regulating all that out…and by that time more than one generation of Orenburgers will have grown up here.

I suspect, by the way, that the authorities themselves also embark in unofficial agreements with the workmen. There will, of course, be a simple contract for an amount of money two, or even three, times higher than the real cost. The real cost is what the workers get;  everything else goes into the pockets of the officials and middle-men. This system of working with the natives from Central Asia was already pretty well developed during Soviet times. If, for instance, a bureaucrat from Rospotrebnadzor (the health and consumer rights body) was dispatched to Tashkent to buy apricots, he would simply drop in on any Uzbek household. Their courtyard would be piled high with the fruit and he would officially buy it for about 100 roubles, but the unofficial price would be 20 roubles. The 80 rouble difference would go into his pocket. The Uzbek didn't make a fuss: he signed the papers, either because  the apricots were anyway going soft or because the 20 roubles rustled so delightfully in his pocket.

"In Orenburg lawyers, economists, financial specialists and accountants will face competition of between 3 and 6 people for every job vacancy. There is, however, one difference: a native Orenburg lawyer will not consider working, even highly paid, as a gang foreman, but a smart migrant will agree to anything."

This was not the first time gasterbeiters had been dispatched to work on our block. Before the garages, it was repairing the facades. Then too they occupied the cellars and asked local people to cook up a simple broth for them or to boil a kettle. Sometimes they cooked plov. I was offered some, but the “mystery” of the food preparation was a little too much for me, and I declined.

Now our houses have been renovated, they are hardly radiating any particular beauty. You see blotches here and there, the plaster is beginning to crack, a window has been scratched and a ventilation fan extract cemented over. But “it's still better than it was”, as one of my neighbour's says. “Of course it is! No denying that,” says another neighbour. “It's the first time that they've done anything since the blocks were built”. Which, in case you were wondering, was back in Stalin's time, 1937.

Orenburg's migrant economy

The Orenburg oblast receives 72.8% of incoming foreign citizens to the Volga district, in comparison to neighbouring Saratov, which gets 3.8% and Tatarstan, 3%. The considerable disparity can be explained by the fact that Orenburg is a border region, so the main influx of migrants crosses its territory and some of them settle there for a long time. 60-80% of gastarbeiters find work in construction. Formerly it was migrants from Tadjikistan, now they are mainly from Uzbekistan. The Uzbeks have taken over the local markets too: lettuce, herbs and spices, vegetables and fruit. 

The migrant workers offer a good deal to locals. A colleague of my husband's recently had work done in her home. She found an advertisement for Orenburg builders in the newspaper and invited them to come and give her a quote. They came and they quoted, but the price was fairly high and it was going to take them quite a long time, so the lady started enquiring among her friends. She found some builders, once again from Central Asia, who came and quoted a price and a time….and she still had enough of both left over to go on holiday. 

"We now have a quota for labour migrants, which is how the authorities try to keep control of the flow. In 2008 approximately 13,000 permits were issued, but in 2010 only just over 7,000. Yet there seem to be more and more visitors from neighbouring Asia appearing in the streets." 

While they were doing her roof and eating her food, the migrant labourers told the good lady their tale. They were organised into gangs, they said, and lived their own lives quite separate, and indeed isolated, from other nationalities. The comforts were minimal and they had few outgoings, but they sent most of their money home to their families.  Almost every one of them had a family back home. I don't know if the men were boasting, or telling the truth, but their gangmaster more often than not had a higher education, though not particularly specialised: they were former lawyers or soldiers.

One of my unmarried friends works at the Institute of Fine Arts as assistant to the rector.  She is paid a pittance, but her parents made sure that she had a flat when she was young (her father is a former military man). By Russian standards she could be said to have had a good dowry, but she is still on her own at 40, so she finds herself having to help her parents financially. Almost every corner of her private house has been let to Uzbek women – and I mean corner: there are couches and trunks, old iron bedsteads have been taken down from the attic and had a mattress put on them, so another person has somewhere to sleep! There is also a small bath house, so they have to pay to wash, although 5 times less than in the public baths over the fence. Sometimes trying to find a husband is like looking for a needle in a haystack, but migrants will always come to your aid and provide you with your daily bread.

Migrant dorm

Migrant workers across Russia live in overcrowded rooms without any comforts and Orenburg

is no exception (photo: neweurasia.net)

We now have a quota for labour migrants, which is how the authorities try to keep control of the flow. If an employer is looking for someone, he has to submit an application. In 2008 approximately 13,000 permits were issued, but in 2010 only just over 7,000. Yet there seem to be more and more visitors from neighbouring Asia appearing in the streets. 

Recently I was in a queue for a cash point. They usually move very quickly (almost as smartly as into the Lenin Mausoleum), but this one wasn't moving at all. 3 minutes, 5 minutes and people starting shifting from one foot to the other. After 7 minutes the queue realises why we're not moving and starts to giggle. At the front there were 3 young men, Tadjiks (perhaps Uzbeks) who were trying to get some cash. They went through the procedure of putting their card in, taking it out and punching in numbers about 5 times.  People in the queue were offering help, but the lads were trying to show their independence and ended up going away with no money. They were obviously used to this situation:  people working in the migration service say that gastarbeiters are often cheated of money and very rarely stand up for themselves. Sometimes they do, though. One of our well-off relations had Uzbek workers at his dacha all summer. They were building him a bath house, but they ran off without a word in the middle of the job. The neighbours thought he probably hadn't been feeding them properly.

Official unemployment in the Orenburg region is no more than 2% and in principle work can be found for anyone registered at the labour exchange, but not everyone will accept what's on offer. One in four vacancies offers remuneration below the minimum wage. 70% of vacancies are for men, whereas half the unemployed in Orenburg region are women. There is above average demand for flame-cutting torch operators, stonemasons, shop assistants, lathe operators, electricians, painters and plasterers and mechanics. For any of these professions there from 2 to 5 candidates for every available job. Specialist professions in demand include insurance agents, doctors, nurses, mangers and computer programmers:  any of these will have a choice of from 2 to 8 openings. Lawyers, economists, financial specialists and accountants will face competition of between 3 and 6 people for every job vacancy. There is, however, one difference: a native Orenburg lawyer will not consider working, even highly paid, as a gang foreman, but a smart migrant will agree to anything.

Labour migrants settle mostly in the larger cities of the region: Orenburg, Orsk, Novotrotsk and Buzuluk. Some prefer the rural areas, especially where the crops are mainly melons, gourds and vegetables: Sol' Iletsk, Ilek, Akbulak. The digging is mainly done by Koreans. They sow, grow and live in the fields and trade the fruits of their labour not far away. We used often to buy fruit and vegetables from them by the roadside, but last summer the aubergines were so bitter than even doubling up on the vinegar didn't get rid of the bitterness during the salting process. My husband spent all winter without his beloved salads and I came to the conclusion that it's better to pay over the odds or to bend double over one's own vegetable beds than buying produce covered with chemicals from the Koreans. I shouldn't perhaps be saying this, but I really minded about the salads I had prepared and had to throw away.

Local attitudes

Local people differ in their attitudes towards the migrants. Once I was standing near those barns that were being built and I heard a local man swearing at the Uzbek builders.  He was really yelling and using extremely choice language. The Uzbeks were protesting, but quietly – they were afraid to answer back in any way, though they certainly had right on their side. This local man was really spoiling for a fight or just to wave his fist at someone and knew that the builders would not say anything to him, because he was their employer. So on the one hand the Orenburgers are happy to make use of the foreign labourers, but are also capable of treating them quite badly. One Tadjik making shoes in a subway was beaten almost to death by nationalists. Sociologists have reported that the level of xenophobia has fallen, but it's still very high.

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