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The pandemic has returned migrant workers to Ukraine. Will they stay?

Ukrainian labour keeps several European economies afloat. But after migrants returned home during the COVID-19 pandemic, Kyiv is now reluctant to let them depart again.

Kateryna Semchuk
24 June 2020
Empty A4 highway between Rzeszow and Korczowa (Polish border crossing with Ukraine), Poland on March 18, 2020
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(c) Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto/PA Images. All rights reserved

“When the borders open, I’ll pack my husband’s suitcase and send him to work. How else can we feed the family?” asks Maryna, who lives in Mizhhirya, a mountain village in Zakarpattia.

This western region of Ukraine borders four EU member states, and for its residents labour migration is often the only way to survive. Maryna, 18, and her husband are trying to raise their one-year-old son on a meagre salary - a hard enough task without the instability of a global pandemic.

COVID-19 has brought life to a standstill in Ukraine, presenting many labour migrants like Maryna’s husband Mykola with an impossible choice: stay overseas and work in dangerous conditions; lose their job and sit out quarantine, unemployed, in a foreign country; or return home where no work awaits them.

“We hope we’ll overcome this virus, because nobody has cancelled bills for gas, electricity or water,” exclaimed Maryna in an online interview. “How are we supposed to pay them? People can’t continue like this for much longer.”

As the continent cautiously emerges from isolation, countries across Europe desperately want to restart their economies - as usual, with migrant labour from the continent’s eastern half, particularly Ukraine.

But the issue of migrant worker safety during a global pandemic has remained largely unanswered, and the Ukrainian government is reluctant to let migrant workers leave again - for more reasons than one.

Needed but neglected

In early March, as Italy’s COVID-19 mortality rates rose to more than 1,000 per day, countries across Europe began to impose quarantine. Ukraine followed suit on 25 March, when prime minister Denys Shmyhal announced that the country would close all its land borders starting from 27 March.

A few days later, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs clarified that Ukraine’s borders would remain open to passengers in private cars, and those travelling to the EU would have to have work visas or hold residency permits. But Ukrainians working abroad - often in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Latvia - had already started rushing home, fearing that they would be unable to enter the country at a later date.

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Visitors queue outside a state migration service office in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine | (c) Yurii Rylchuk/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved

In April, Ihor, 48, returned from Slovakia to Zakarpattia because his three month visa-free stay in the EU was coming to an end. In Slovakia, he had worked at a reinforced concrete factory outside Bratislava. Once lockdowns began, Ihor says, he had to wear a mask at work, and says he was paid less for a much heavier workload in his eight hour shift.

Other migrant workers started worrying about being trapped overseas with a work permit near its expiry date, or lost their jobs and could not afford to stay in a foreign country without their job. In rare cases, employers who had to shut down their businesses then evicted Ukrainian workers, whom they had housed and fed at their own expense.

Ukrainians working in restaurants, hotels and transportation have looked for other work since lockdown kicked in, says Oleg Borisov, an expert on labour migration and a member of the Ukrainian Trade Union of Construction and Building Material Workers.

“These Ukrainians have temporarily changed their profile to cleaning and technical work,” Borisov continues. “Construction workers have switched to another mode of operation. Those employers who managed to adjust their workspaces to safety guidelines kept working. But they found other problems: how to accommodate people, how to reduce the number of residents in dormitories and hostels, how to organise shifts.”

The majority of migrants in Poland work under temporary civil law contracts rather than employment contracts, which means that they often have few rights in emergency situations.

Vitaliy Makhinko, chairman of the Ukrainian Migrant trade union in Poland, says his organisation has received complaints from migrant workers about being fined for leaving their jobs in Poland early, or not being paid for work done.

“When Ukraine announced a few days in advance the closure of its borders, people began to leave their jobs and close their contracts,” Makhinko says. “Under their fixed-term contracts, if the worker does not finish his work, he can receive a large fine. A vast number of Ukrainians [in Poland] haven’t been paid for the month of March, some because they were working illegally.”

Can Ukraine compete with Europe for its own citizens?

During his inauguration speech last summer, President Volodymyr Zelenskyi vowed to bring back more than five million Ukrainian working abroad with a mix of financial incentives and tax breaks. Nearly a year on from this promise, a small number have returned, but not as a result of the Ukrainian government’s proposal.

“We want to try and retain people in Ukraine… There’s plenty of work here,” stated prime minister Shmyhal in an interview in April, claiming that two million Ukrainians working abroad had already returned due to the pandemic.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyi calls on Ukrainians working abroad to return to the country

Vitaliy Makhinko, from the Ukrainian Migrant trade union, believes it’s impossible to make estimates with any certainty. Some experts, such as demographer Ella Libanova, gave alternative estimates, claiming that between 450,000 and 500,000 migrants may have returned.

“There’s no data on migrants. Alongside workers, many students have also returned from abroad. How can we separate them from [labour] migrants in the statistics?” Makhinko asks.

Remittances from migrant workers are an important source of income for Ukraine. In 2019, Ukrainian labour migrants transferred more than US$12.2 billion to Ukraine, amounting to 7.8% of the country’s GDP. This is a record number since the National Bank started maintaining statistics in 2015. Most of the money - $3.68 billion (almost 31% of all funds transferred into the country) - came from Poland.

But the Ukrainian government has temporarily banned migrant workers from leaving the country during quarantine, including refusing permission for European countries to transport Ukrainians for seasonal work in charter planes - causing a sizable public scandal in the process.

As a result, there’s a hostile mood among some Ukrainian migrant workers towards government efforts to prevent them from leaving the country. They have few job prospects, and cannot receive state financial assistance for temporary unemployment (most of them never get an employment contract). Those who want to go back to work, or those who planned to go for seasonal work abroad in May in any case, are travelling anyway - even if a taxi journey is much more expensive than traditional transport.

“There are no offers on the Ukrainian labour market for returning migrants,” Oleg Borisov says. “In addition, they cannot do the same work they did abroad - service, care, construction and agriculture - because those sectors aren’t as developed here as in Europe."

Lack of workers on EU farms

Europe wants Ukrainian workers - even more so, it turns out, due to the pandemic. The number of available migrants from the poorest countries inside the EU like Romania and Bulgaria is not sufficient, and some EU states are trying to bring Ukrainians to their countries to harvest crops. Around 200 Ukrainians, despite the official position, have already flown to Finland for seasonal work - on a charter flight organised by a Finnish company looking for workers. Ukraine has received similar diplomatic requests from Germany, Italy and Poland. The authorities agreed to consider every application from each country separately in order to permit migrant workers to travel.

But the Ukrainian government is reluctant. In April, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba stated it is ‘illogical to organise mass charter flights at the same time to export Ukrainians to countries where pandemic is ongoing’.

Poland appears to be the most interested in Ukrainian workers, as the majority of them were already working there before the pandemic (almost 12% of all workers). Poland has the most liberal legislation of work permits for Ukrainians and relies on them heavily, with a National Bank study estimating their contribution to 11% of Poland’s GDP between 2014 and 2018.

“Their [Europe’s] worst situation will be better than our good situation. Migration will increase, according to my predictions"

Poland has adjusted quickly to new challenges of the pandemic, permitting Ukrainians whose legal stay has expired to remain in the country legally. The Polish government has authorised the issue of working visas via post, facilitating the employment of foreign workers while maintaining commitments to safety.

Beginning from 22 May, seasonal workers have been exempt from the mandatory 14-day quarantine in Poland. Before crossing the border, each traveler is registered and their temperature is taken. In another beneficial move, the Polish state has said it will pay for mandatory COVID-19 tests of seasonal workers.

But even with all these facilitations, it is much less than what Poland needs, says Mirosław Maliszewski, head of the Union of Polish Fruit Growers, in an online discussion about the number of Ukrainian who have already received working visas. Maliszewski is concerned that what the Polish government is doing about the lack of seasonal workers will not be nearly enough:

“If visas are issued at such a pace as they are today and only those who received a visa with a work permit can cross the borders, even then Poland still will not be able to supply with employees so much as one large municipality. I know that in Poland there are districts where 4,000 workers come to harvest strawberries each year.”

Good effort

It is hard to say whether Zelenskyi’s desire to return Ukrainians to Ukraine is motivated by political expediency or concern for the prosperous new Ukraine he says he will build for them.

In June, the Ukrainian parliament adopted a law on “protecting migrant workers and combating fraud in employment abroad”. Thus, Ukrainians who migrate for work will no longer have to pay fees to employment agencies for vacancies, and companies that violate the law will be subject to fines.

Vitaliy Makhinko believes that the number of Ukrainians migrating for work will likely increase, even with the ongoing pandemic. “Their [Europe’s] worst situation will be better than our good situation,” he says. “Migration will increase according to my predictions. Take, for example, an [ongoing] increase in offers from northern Europe.”

The Ukrainian government’s desire to curtail emigration is understandable - the mass outflow of labour could have negative consequences for the country in the future. Migrants do not pay taxes in Ukraine, but receive certain forms of social assistance from the state, such as sick and maternity leave, compensation for injuries at work, as well as pensions. In addition, there is often no mechanism for credit programmes, even with legal employment abroad. Another issue of concern is the fact many Ukrainians working abroad are employed outside their qualifications or in low-skilled jobs.

Ukraine lacks a policy on migration, let alone a strategy. As a result of the coronacrisis, the number of people unemployed has reached half a million, according to statistics by the Ukrainian State Employment Center, and the only active sectors are logistics, security and trade. Ukraine needs a real strategy for encouraging its citizens to return, including programmes to build industries and jobs. And that’s many years of hard work.

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