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“Nelegaly”: work and shelter in migrant Moscow

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Ten days ago, an “underground town” of migrant workers was discovered below a military factory in Moscow. The discovery played into popular anxieties about migrants and was heavily spun by the national media. For Madeleine Reeves, however, it highlighted the daily struggle migrants face to stay “legal”, and survive.

Madeleine Reeves
26 April 2011

On Thursday April 14th, the discovery of an 'underground town' of Central Asian migrant workers living in a bomb shelter 15 metres below a closed military factory made headline news in Moscow and fostered intense on-line discussion. Lurid TV exposés of migrants living in extreme accommodation are hardly new in Russia: raids on unregistered accommodation are often videoed by the security services and the footage regularly figures in evening news bulletin

On Thursday April 14th, the discovery of an 'underground town' of Central Asian migrant workers living in a bomb shelter 15 metres below a closed military factory made headline news in Moscow and fostered intense on-line discussion. Lurid TV exposés of migrants living in extreme accommodation are hardly new in Russia: raids on unregistered accommodation are often videoed by the security services and the footage regularly figures in evening news bulletins, revealing intimate details of migrant life in poorly-lit basements, overcrowded railway wagons, or apartments-cum-dormitories housing dozens of foreign tenants.

What was unusual in this case was the size of this underground dormitory and the fact that the factory it serviced was considered to be of national significance. 110 migrant workers, mostly from Uzbekistan, were found to be living in the Stalin-era bomb shelter, raising questions in the storm of online discussion that followed about why ‘guest workers’ (gastarbatiery) should have been allowed to work in such a strategically sensitive factory and how they could have survived so long unnoticed by those living above ground. 

Incidents such as the April 14th raid play into popular anxieties in Russia about the threat to public space and public order posed by undocumented migrant workers: nelegaly (‘illegals’), as the reportage of this incident depicted the bomb-shelter residents. News reports were quick to note that the migrants found here would be ‘deported to their motherland’ and that some were being investigated for criminal activity, conflating their undocumented residence with criminal intent. 

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The market for fake work permits is a thriving one.
Migrants often only find out their own documents are
invalid when they are stopped and checked by police

Amidst the flurry of media interest, what remains little explored in the subsequent discussion is the question of what exactly renders a person ‘illegal’ in the contemporary Russian metropolis, and how the political economy of labour and accommodation serve to illegalise much migrant labour. These dynamics are worth exploring, not least because campaigns against ‘illegal immigrants’ often serve as the acceptable face of extreme-right nationalist organising, with dark-skinned migrant workers the regular target of violently racist attacks

Administrative hoops

The case of Kyrgyz migrant workers, which I have been exploring through ethnographic interviews and participant observation since 2005, can give a good insight into these dynamics. As elsewhere in Central Asia, labour migration has come increasingly to figure as a livelihood strategy in rural Kyrgyzstan, and officially-registered migrant remittances today constitute over a quarter of the country’s GDP according to World Bank figures. The primary destination for Kyrgyzstani migrant workers is Russia, and whilst cities in Siberia and the Far East are increasingly popular destinations, Moscow has the draw of significantly higher salaries and of dense and well-institutionalised Kyrgyz migrant networks that can help in locating and obtaining work and accommodation. Whilst this is a particular and localised story (patterns of migration and strategies for finding accommodation are quite distinct for different post-Soviet migrant communities) – the Kyrgyz case is illustrative of some of the dilemmas that migrant workers in the Russian metropolis face, whatever their country of origin.

Salaries for migrant workers are under half the average rental cost of a simple flat in the outskirts of Moscow. As a result, most migrants live in property that is “invisible” to the state, and rely on private firms and middle-men to obtain the registration documents needed to remain legally visible. 

The first challenge is getting registered.  A citizen of Kyrgyzstan can enter Russia without a visa, and is entitled to stay for up to 90 days in the country before being obliged to leave and enter again anew (unsurprisingly there is a rich local economy in fake border stamps and migration cards). He or she must register with the Federal Migration Service, however, within 3 days of arriving in order to avoid fines and potential deportation. This system for registering internal residence in the state is a hold-over from the Soviet propiska system through which internal movement within the Soviet state was regulated. It is nominally designed to keep track of the city’s temporary population. Only certain kinds of accommodation, however - those that are “permanent”, those that are deemed fit for human habitation, or those with a certain number of humans per metre square – “count” as legally visible homes. Here lies the first in a series of administrative hoops, for overwhelmingly, migrants tend to live in accommodation that is invisible to stately systems of accounting: that is, in a railway wagon on a construction site; in shipping containers on market-sites; in the basement of an apartment building, or sharing a 2 or 3 room apartment with up to 30 other migrant workers.

There is an economic logic here, just as there is in other cities, such as Dubai, with large migrant populations and soaring real estate costs. Wages in Moscow for migrant workers are typically just half of what they are for those with Russian citizenship – in 2010 according to my research averaging around 15-20,000 roubles ($520-$690) for a 60-70 hour working week. There is a lot of variation here: construction workers often earn considerably more on private construction sites; whereas cleaners, mostly women, often earn substantially less. But the logic is nonetheless clear: average salaries for migrant workers in 2010 were under half the average rental cost of a simple, unfurnished 2 or 3 room flat in the outskirts of Moscow. As a result, most migrants live in property that is “invisible” to the state, and hence rely on private firms and middle-men – themselves often migrants who have more years’ experience navigating the Russian bureaucracy – to obtain the registration documents needed to remain legally visible.

Finding a roof

The gulf between salaries and rental costs points to the second challenge of keeping a roof in migrant Moscow: that of finding safe, affordable accommodation. Well-established migrants workers, with good contacts, good knowledge of Russian and sufficient capital to rent an apartment for $1200 or more per month often sub-let space to other migrant workers, acting as informal “landlords” and intermediaries in navigating the registration bureaucracy. Typically these so-called “big tenants” sub-let mattress-space in their apartments for around 2,500-3,000 roubles per month ($85-$110), accommodating as many tenants as floor-space will allow. The best apartments for this purpose are those that are located near to metro stations and equipped minimally with “bare floor and bare walls” (golyi pol i golyi duval), since they allow maximum number of mattresses to be accommodated, together with minimum risk of damage to the real landlord’s property (important considering that the latter are often unaware of the real number of tenants to whom their apartment is being sub-let). 

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It is common for dozens of migrant workers to share
an apartment intended for single family use. Photo Ilya
Varlamov 

Not unlike the communal apartments of an earlier era, life in such apartments can be socially rich, joyful, chaotic or extremely tense, especially for married couples. Multiple daily timetables need to be calibrated, with each other, and with the constraints posed by living together in intensely confined space. In the usual “dormitory” arrangement, a single apartment of 25 or 30 tenants will be sharing a kitchen, toilet and bathroom intended for single family use. In such a situation, accusations of selfishness, unfaithfulness, of disturbing the neighbours, or of the mercenary instrumentalism born of Moscow life (moskvachylyk in Kyrgyz) can abound.

Documenting work

Perhaps the biggest challenge for migrant workers, however, is of finding, obtaining and documenting work. The pressure to find and accept work quickly is enormous: most Kyrgyzstani migrant workers incur debts to reach their destination, and have little in the way of reserves to support them while they look for work. In such a situation, many first-time migrants, especially those with limited knowledge of Russian and dependent upon acquaintances to find work will accept work that informal, uncontracted, untaxed and hence invisible to the state. Many employers are reluctant to register employees because of the higher taxes they are liable for hiring migrant workers. At the same time, quotas for migrant work have been reduced as a result of the financial crisis and a Moscow government under pressure not to give “local” jobs to foreign hands. Work permits, legally required if a migrant is to remain in the country beyond the 3 months permitted without a visa, have thus become costly commodities, obtainable on the open market last summer of 2010 for about the same price (between 12,000 and 20,000 roubles) as the average monthly wage. Many migrant workers, unsurprisingly, get by with none; or resort to fakes. Others rely on intermediaries or commercial firms to obtain documents that are, at least formally, ‘authentic’.

Migrant life in Moscow is a struggle to remain legally visible, to find and maintain work, to find shelter and above all to save enough money to support family members back home.

Herein, however, lies the rub. For as with the residence registration, there are few independent ways of telling whether the permit that has been issued is “clean” or “fake”. “Fake” work permits often look uncannily like the real thing; and migrant workers are often unaware of the real status of their document, since it has been obtained through one or more intermediary. Moreover, a document often starts out as one thing, but then “becomes” the other, as commercial companies increase their share of a limited quota of work permits by issuing what ought to be a unique identifying number to multiple permit holders. The unfortunate employee only finds out that their document has been ascribed to a different person – if it carries a different “identity” – if and when they are stopped by the police and find that their permit no longer documents them.

There are mechanisms, of course, for getting around such uncertainties, just as there are mechanisms for ensuring that a 3-room flat intended for a single family in fact comes to host 20 or 30 people. Usually these mechanisms involve informal payments to state officials – “cigarette money” as it is often called, to the local uchastkovyi policeman – the lowest level in a pyramid of informal payments. But the pervasive uncertainty generated by the proliferation of fakes profoundly mediates experiences of the city, and of the possibility of feeling ‘at home’ outside one’s immediate accommodation. Many migrant workers speak of having specific and highly coordinated routes and routines: knowing parts of the city that are ‘safe’ and districts in which their own unfamiliarity and the lack of acquaintances amongst the local police force render them vulnerable to arbitrary document checks. Deportations, whilst not common, are frequent enough for every migrant worker to know someone who had been unceremoniously deported from Russia. They thus represented a very real risk; particularly at times when terrorist threat gives ‘securitization’ a distinctly racialised twist.

Such realities should give us pause when we hear about raids on ‘hidden’ accommodation of the kind discovered 15 metres below a Moscow factory and of the ‘illegals’ living and sleeping in shifts inside. Migrant life in Moscow is a struggle to remain legally visible, to find and maintain work, to find shelter and above all to save enough money to support family members back home. The tendency for nelegal to equate “migrant worker”—a term so pervasive in contemporary pubic discourse in Russia that it is rarely used with the noun that it qualifies, migrant—has a doubly pernicious effect. It serves, on the one hand, to equate the person with an administrative status: this person is not merely in administrative violation, but ‘illegal’ in all dimensions of their being. But it also has the effect of eliding the bigger and much more complex questions of political economy in the former Soviet space which have made the states of Central Asia some of the most remittance-dependent in the world, and which mean that migrant labour in Russia remains, for the most part, uncontracted, precarious and vulnerable to sudden termination.

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