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Russia's labour migrants are caught between poverty and a pandemic

Hundreds of thousands of Central Asian migrants are trapped in Russia's quarantine lockdown, lacking jobs, livelihoods, and free access to healthcare.

Ekaterina Ivashchenko
7 May 2020
An employee of the municipal service cleans and disinfects the entrance of a residential building in Saint Petersburg, Russia, March 25, 2020.
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Photo (c): Valya Egorshin / NurPhoto / PAImages

On March 18, the lives of hundreds of thousands of migrants across Russia were turned upside down. That day, the country closed its borders with the outside world in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Right until the beginning of April, the embassies of Central Asian states chartered flights to evacuate their citizens from Russia. Nevertheless, most Central Asian migrants have remained in the country — albeit without jobs and without livelihoods.

Forty-four year old Madina Mamajanova from Khujand is one of them. She is the sole provider for her two children, who live with her parents in her home country of Tajikistan. Madina has worked in Russia since 1999; March 18 was her last day on the job as a chef in a Moscow restaurant. Having sent all her money home to her family, Madina now faces a tough situation: she has no money left to pay her rent, but cannot more work. In February, she sent her daughter back to Tajikistan to live with her parents. She's relieved to have done so; in a crisis situation it's easier to survive alone.

"At the end of March, I received my last paycheque for 12 shifts. But a third — 9,500 rubles (£104) — was deducted from all the chefs' wages for allegedly spoiling the products," Madina says. "My landlord didn't reduce the rent, but just deferred payment for a month. I'm running out of money; I'm ready to work as a cleaner or to look after the sick, but I can't find anything."

Since she left the restaurant, Madina has only been invited to one interview. The job in question will only start once the country's quarantine measures are lifted. But that doesn't seem likely to happen soon (on May 7, Moscow's Mayor Sergey Sobyanin extended the capital's quarantine until May 30 — ed.) On more than one occasion, Madina has considered leaving the country as soon as the borders are open again. However, she was dissuaded by the fact that "there's even less work over there [in Tajikistan]."

Give me work, so I have something to live on and some way of supporting my parents

"I'm not asking the authorities for money or for handouts. Just give me work, so that I have something to live on and some way of supporting my parents," Madina exclaims.

It's important to remember that Central Asian migrants faced xenophobia and discrimination in Russia long before COVID-19 arrived on the scene. But the border closures and quarantine restrictions have exacerbated their already precarious situation, leaving many unemployed, unprotected, and without any choice as to where to wait out the pandemic.

No job, no ticket

There are thousands of people like Madina in Moscow. Human rights activist and lawyer Zarnigor Omonillayeva notes that migrant women were among the first to suffer the consequences of the pandemic:

"In Russia, migrant women are mainly employed in the service sector and as cleaners — the sectors of the economy which were the first to shut down. The first calls we received about mass layoffs and unpaid wages came in mid-March, and came from women. The highest number of layoffs came on March 27-28, and many people did not receive their wages in full. They'd worked for almost the entire month, yet received only half their wages or nothing at all," remarks the lawyer.

According to data from December 2019, there are over 1.6 million migrants living in Moscow, mostly from the five post-Soviet republics of Central Asia. They mostly work in the service sector, housing and communal services or on construction sites. These sectors of the economy, again, were those most hard hit by the self-isolation regime which was introduced in Moscow on March 30. Nevertheless, dismissals of migrant workers from these jobs began earlier, in mid-March.

Those left without work were unable to pay for their employment permits. These documents are required of all foreign citizens with visa-free access to Russia (with the exception of those from fellow members of the Eurasian Economic Union: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan). The initial registration of an employment permit costs 12,750 rubles (£140), followed by monthly payments thereafter. In Moscow, a monthly payment comes to 5,350 rubles (£60) — a large sum to an unemployed person. Therefore, migrants, human rights activists, and embassy staff have been appealing to President Vladimir Putin through social networks and mass media to cancel these payment requirements.

The authorities have met migrants halfway, but they took their time. On March 19, the Ministry of Internal Affairs allowed migrants to apply for new work permits and extend their temporary residency permits from Russia. Given that the country's borders were already closed, this allowed many migrants to stay in the country legally. A month later, on April 18, Putin passed a decree exempting migrants from payments for their work permits from March 15 to July 15. The validity of temporary residence permits and migration cards have been extended for the same period. Migrant workers breathed a sigh of relief. However, nobody at the time expected that the self-isolation measures would drag on until May.

Zarnigor Omonillayeva says that at first, migrants encountered no problems. They paid their rents from March's wages and cancelled their monthly payments for work permits. But by the end of April, they had started to run out of money and appealed to human rights activists for help.

Omonillayeva recalls their cries for help: "I'm starving! I don't have money for groceries or rent! What should we do?"

"Due to the pass system [during quarantine], people cannot leave their homes," she continues. "If they leave anyway, they'll be fined for being outside without a pass. For example, one guy was fined 4,000 rubles (£44), which is a significant amount for a migrant who was left without work."

The last charter flights departed in late March. Tickets were sold at regular prices

Once Central Asian states had closed their borders (Kazakhstan on March 16, Kyrgyzstan on March 17, Tajikistan on March 20, and Uzbekistan on March 23), followed by Russia (March 18), hundreds of migrants were stranded in airports across the country. After two weeks of negotiations between Central Asian diplomats and the Russian authorities, charter flights were organised to evacuate those who had bought tickets home on cancelled flights. Meanwhile, other labour migrants continued to turn up at Russian airports without tickets, hoping to find a way home. They ended up living in transit for weeks. While waiting for flights, they were accommodated in hostels at the embassies' expense. The last charter flights departed in late March. The tickets were sold at regular prices.

Leased for life

One of those who remained in Russia was 38-year-old Akhliyor Sultanov from the town of Konibodom, Tajikistan. Since 2001, Sultanov has regularly travelled to Russia and back for short-term jobs.

"I've done all kinds of work. I've worked as a plumber and an electrician, and on the construction of the metro. The last place I worked was the building site of [business park] Moscow City, where I installed the wiring. I worked throughout March, and in April we were told to take a break for a week. But it's been four weeks now. I received my last paycheque on April 13; that was the day hundreds of migrants like me, who worked on construction sites, lost their jobs," says Akhliyor.

Akhliyor shares a two-room apartment with nine other men. Each of them pays 5,000 rubles (£55) for a bed. All of them are now out of work.

"Nobody knows what will happen next. I'm now living on credit. Friends in other cities across Russia are sending me money; the job market is better in some places than others. Some of the guys I live with have no money at all; we break bread together. It's good that we at least have internet, so we have some way to entertain ourselves. We've seen people who are worse off, so we're trying to help them out. One time we watched a video about some guys living in a construction trailer without water or electricity. We sent them some money. Throwing away ten rubles means nothing to us, but for them 100 rubles (£1.10) means a loaf of bread," explains Akhliyor.

Most of Akhliyor's flatmates want to return to their countries of origin. "I can't leave: I have to pay off my debts here. And then there's quarantine. We could only leave in order to go back to the construction sites, and we need to work," says the electrician. In the meantime he, like thousands of other foreign workers in Moscow, must abide by the self-isolation regime. But doing that isn't as easy as the authorities who introduced it might think.

The crowded accommodation where Russia's labour migrants live could help spread the coronavirus

Renat Karimov, chairman of the Union of Migrant Workers, says that Russia's labour migrants live in crowded accommodation, which hypothetically risks spreading the coronavirus.

"The danger isn't to migrants who rent their own accommodation — they live two or three to a room, and anybody who becomes sick can isolate themselves. The danger is to those in dormitories, huge shared rooms filled with bunk beds. If one person gets sick in a place like that, a large number of people could be infected with the virus," explains Karimov. "Problems could also arise for those who live in basements, which is particularly the case for janitors and those who work for the communal and housing services. It needs to be understood that migrant workers are at higher risk of infection than the average Muscovite," he concludes.

"These people simply don't have any money left, since they are now facing a second month without the opportunity to earn a living. Obviously, in a situation like that they will be tempted to violate the self-isolation regime in search of work," says Batyrjon Shermukhammad, a lawyer and founder of the Migrant portal, which offers news and legal advice to migrant workers in Russia.

A test of equality

The first positive coronavirus cases among Russia's labour migrants began to be recorded in early April. At the time, human rights defenders and the embassies of Central Asian countries were receiving hundreds of calls every day. Once human rights activists and diplomats realised that panic was widespread and growing among migrants, they came together to provide qualified assistance. This led to the creation of the Council for Assistance to Migrants in early April, including representatives from the Embassy of Uzbekistan, Uzbekistan's Agency for External Labour Migration, and Kyrgyzstan's State Migration Service, alongside human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, and various NGOs.

"We were afraid that migrants would face problems with calling an ambulance or receiving medical care. We understood that those who are found to be infected will face difficulties buying food and medicine. Since there is not enough money for all migrants, we focused on those who have the coronavirus and those who live with them, who must also comply with the self-isolation regime and therefore cannot work," adds Shermukhammad, who is also a member of the council.

The council performs several functions: it provides counselling and psychological assistance, helps call an ambulance, and provides food and medicines for migrants living in apartments and hostels. Its hotline is available in Russian, Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Uzbek.

On April 30, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin declared that migrants are not denied medical assistance if they need it. It appears that while migrants really are treated for free in Moscow's hospitals, reaching them still requires a great deal of effort on their part.

"It's very hard to get an ambulance or get tested for the coronavirus," confirms Omonillayeva, who is contacted every day by migrants facing these problems. "Despite the pandemic, the self-isolation regime, and claims that as many tests as possible need to be available to people with suspected coronavirus infections, migrants are denied testing," says the lawyer. According to her, the grounds for refusal can be that migrants lack a proper insurance policy, that they have reached out to a clinic in a district where they are not registered residents, or that they do not have identity documents.

Nobody should be turned away at the hospital gates just because something is wrong with their documents

"During a pandemic, this is completely irrational," stresses Omonillayeva. She urges the Russian authorities to stop discriminating against migrants when it comes to access to medicine and healthcare during a worldwide health emergency.

"Migrants are part of Russian society, whether they're legal or illegal. A balance must be struck between their rights and those of Russian citizens to medical care. It's equally important that before employers and landlords understand that they are responsible for what happens if they deprive somebody of his job or room," concludes the lawyer.

The flight that wasn't

That is how Muhammad Zokirov from Uzbekistan was almost made homeless. The 26-year-old had been working as a waiter in a restaurant in Moscow. In mid-March, he received his final paycheque and then, with the rest of the staff, was sent away on unpaid leave.

For several weeks, Muhammad sat at home waiting in vain for a flight back to Uzbekistan. To make matters worse, his savings had started to run out. Luckily, he found a job taking orders over the phone for a pizza delivery service.

"It's not much, but at least I have some income. So I'm not planning to return home. But as soon as the borders open up, thousands of my countrymen who have lost their jobs will pour into Uzbekistan," Muhammad explains.

He is no longer able to send money back to his relatives.

"Before the crisis struck, I sent them US$200 every couple of weeks. Now I earn several times less than I did. Earlier I'd get 2,000 rubles (£22) including a good tip for the day, but now I get just 1,000," said the young man.

Nonetheless, Muhammad is pleased to have any work at all. Not all his friends have been so lucky.

Nobody knows what will happen to people in Muhammad's position after the pandemic. Renat Karimov expects that when the quarantine measures are finally lifted, not only Central Asian migrants will lose their jobs — many Russians will, too.


"Many small businesses have closed down, which will lead people to look for work in sectors where they haven't before," predicts Karimov. "As a result, competition will intensify and many migrants could be left without work. This can already be seen among couriers, where there is already so much competition that their salaries have fallen several times."

Quarantine solidarity

There is still no clarity about when it will be possible for Russia to go back to work again. Batyrjon Shermukhammad says that this fact, alongside their fear of contracting the coronavirus, makes many migrants want to leave Russia as soon as they can.

"Firstly, back in Central Asia they can live at home and save on paying rent. They can always find money for food, or at least borrow from relatives. And secondly, if they get sick there, the state will treat them as its own citizens," the lawyer explains.

However, Russia's labour migrants have a more mixed attitude about what awaits them if they return to their countries of origin. They understand that even if they manage to return, they will be quarantined for two weeks upon arrival — a requirement in all countries in Central Asia. Meanwhile, the real public health situation in the region is far from clear. This is especially true in Tajikistan, where the authorities only acknowledged coronavirus cases in the country on April 29 — before that, they claimed, people had been dying of pneumonia. Nevertheless, the main reason for migrants' reluctance to leave Russia is the hope that they will soon be able to return to work.

Fortunately, labour migrants have not been left to grapple with these challenges alone. Many NGOs, diaspora organisations, and simply people who are not indifferent to their plight have united to lend a helping hand to their compatriots — they purchase groceries, medicine, and offer financial support if they are able.

"This pandemic has demonstrated that people across the world are prepared not only to help doctors, but each other. We're no exception," notes Batyrjon Shermukhamad. "The problem today is that all this assistance is concentrated in Moscow and a handful of other large cities. For example, the other day I received a call from the city of Kurgan, where more than 200 Uzbeks don't even have money for food. People in the regions should be encouraged to get organised."

The more migrants there are who have some money, the easier it will be for the migrant community to survive this crisis

Ultimately, says Renat Karimov, it is up to the Russian authorities to ensure that labour migrants survive the pandemic.

"Putin promised that those who have lost their jobs will be able to receive payments of up to 12,130 rubles (£133) from the employment service. We asked the Ministry of Labour to clarify whether this also applies to migrants, but so far we have not received a response. That would be the correct measure, even if it only applied to legally registered migrants rather than all migrants in the country. In general, the more migrants there are who have some money, the easier it will be for the migrant community to survive this crisis, given its networks of mutual support. If just one person who shares an apartment with four others were to receive such a payment, he would use it to feed all his flatmates," Karimov affirms.

Labour migrants such as Muhammad, Akhliyor, and Madina are the backbone of Moscow's economy. In recent years, the fees migrants pay for work permits has provided significant sums for the capital's coffers. In 2016, the city's mayor admitted that these sales brought Moscow even more revenue than oil companies. Perhaps, then, the moment has come for the authorities to "repay" this debt and help one of the most vulnerable sections of Russian society? It is help they deserve, and would pay off in full when Moscow's quarantine is finally lifted — whenever that will be.

Translated from the Russian by Maxim Edwards

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