Undefended - Russia's migrant workers

Jane Buchanan
18 March 2009

The fate of millions of migrant workers in Russia is in the lurch as the country reels from the global financial crisis. Even in the best of times, during the recent years of Russia's major economic boom, migrant workers in Russia have been subject to widespread abuses both in and outside the workplace. Now, economic crisis, coupled with a growing tide of hate-motivated violence in Russia, puts migrant workers at even greater risk. That is, unless the government takes immediate action to protect workers from abusive employers, employment agencies, and the police.

With over 40 percent of Russia's migrant workers employed in the construction industry, the fate of this sector is particularly relevant. Russia's multi-year construction boom, driven by high energy prices, appears to be grinding to a halt, with building projects across the country frozen and workers asked to go home.  

Of course, workers' options at home, in countries like Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Moldova, which rank among the poorest in the region, were limited even in good economic times. They will still try to earn a decent living for themselves and their loved ones.  This leaves most workers feeling that they have little choice but to stay on in Russia, or at least to try their luck in Russia again for seasonal work after workers' typical winter hiatus at home with their families.  

Moreover, Russia needs migrant workers to offset a serious demographic crisis. Since 1992, Russia's population has declined by 6.5 million, and the yearly rate of decline is increasing. Both the UN and International Labor Organization (ILO) have indicated that Russia is likely to face labor shortages in the near future, perhaps as soon as 2012.

Russia has one of the largest migrant populations in the world, second only to the United States. Although estimates vary, some 4-9 million of Russia's migrants have come in search of work, and find it: overwhelmingly low-skilled employment in construction, agriculture, transport and manufacturing. Some 80 percent of Russia's migrant workers come from 9 former Soviet states, with which Russia maintains a visa-free regime.[1]

Most workers are recruited in their home countries for work in Russia by relatives, friends, or neighbors who have previously worked on Russian construction sites. In much smaller numbers, workers utilize formal employment agencies, the largest of which are usually run by the state.

Very often, though, migrant workers' problems begin with these intermediaries who have promised to find them decent jobs with steady pay. In the worst cases, workers are unwittingly trafficked into forced labor. Typically in such cases the employment agency or other intermediary delivers workers to employers in Russia who confiscate their passports in order to coerce them to work without wages. Workers may also be forced to endure long working hours, forced confinement at the work site, poor or no food, and even beatings.

Forced labour

Take Siarkhon Tabarov, a 40-year-old worker, from Tajikistan. After seeing a television advertisement by a local employment agency promising good jobs in Russia, he signed an agreement with the agency and traveled with 33 others to Rostov, in southern Russia, last March. Once in Rostov, the agency and employers immediately confiscated everyone's passports then drove and later forced them to walk to a remote mountainous area. Only then did the workers learn that they would be employed in a quarry digging stones, using only hand tools. When Tabarov and the other workers initially refused to perform this job, the employment agency's representative threatened them, "Whether you want to work or not, you will work. We will deport you."

Tabarov and the other workers worked for 85 days, were not paid, and for the most part were forced to live in an abandoned refrigerator truck containing filthy mattresses and a few cots. To eat they were given macaroni, bread, and kasha and only two large containers of water for the almost three months that they were there. The workers mostly drank puddles or water that they managed to collect from a nearby swamp. When the workers protested these conditions by refusing to work, demanding that they be paid or allowed to return home, the employer punished those seen as the initiators by refusing to give them food for two days.

Tabarov and the others were eventually freed when he managed to contact some relatives who alerted an international organization and the Tajik government to the case.

Nonpayment of wages

Trafficking and forced labor are particularly severe abuses of exceptional violation, but nonpayment of wages is utterly rampant, by private and state employers alike.  Migrant workers typically do not know when they will be paid, how much they will be paid, or even if they will be paid. Because the practices of non-payment or delayed payment are so pervasive, many workers feel they have no choice but to remain at a job for weeks or months in hopes of one day receiving all or some of the wages owed to them. 

Employers also frequently require migrant workers to work excessively long working hours and do not provide safe working conditions. Some employers use violence or threats of violence to coerce workers into accepting these terms and conditions of work.

Employers in most cases refuse to provide migrant workers with written employment contracts, as required under Russian law, making workers even more vulnerable to wage violations and other abuses and limiting their opportunities to seek assistance from official bodies in cases of abuse.

In many instances police officials responsible for providing protection and facilitating redress themselves prey on migrants. Police regularly target ethnic minorities, including migrant workers, for petty extortion during spot document inspections on the street. Sometimes, during these inspections, police also beat or humiliate them.

The government's response to these abuses has largely been to hail its recent migration policy reforms as evidence that they are looking out for the interests of migrants (at the same time looking out for Russia's national interest by facilitating a steady stream of workers). Reforms that came into effect in 2007 made it easier for workers who can enter Russia without a visa to legalize their stay and employment. These reforms, while positive, have clearly not been sufficient, to protect workers from the range of abuses that many of them face.

The government has also expressed a "love it or leave it" attitude, suggesting that if migrant workers don't like the conditions they find in Russia, then they can just stay home.

But everyone knows that the expectation that the workers "just stay home" is not realistic, or desirable, neither for the workers themselves, who have few or no opportunities for productive employment at home, nor for Russia's employers who rely on low-skilled employees from abroad to do the dirty, low-paying, and dangerous jobs that most Russian citizens aren't willing to do. Furthermore, migrant workers in Russia have a considerable impact on the economies of both Russia (experts estimate that migrant workers contribute eight to nine percent of Russian GDP) and their home countries. Remittances constitute significant portions of many regional governments' GDP (42 percent of Tajikistan's and 39 percent of Moldova's in 2007, according to the World Bank).

Nor is the "love it or leave it" position viable for protecting the human rights of migrant workers in Russia. Yes, governments have the right to develop laws and policies to regulate migration, including migration for work. But Russia's laws and policies on migration must be consistent with the country's obligations under international human rights law to protect the fundamental rights of every individual, including migrant workers, irrespective of their migration status.

Although the full impact of the economic downturn in Russia remains far from clear, without urgent action by the Russian government, Russia's already vulnerable migrant workers will be that much more exposed, as employers increasingly try to cut corners, intermediaries look to capitalize on workers' desperation, and private citizens look to scapegoat migrants for their economic woes.

What's to be done?

The Russian government must ensure rigorous labor inspections, prosecution of abusive employers, and effective regulation of intermediaries. It should also develop accessible complaint mechanisms for victims and timely and effective investigations into allegations of abuse. Further reform in migration law is also necessary to allow workers to regularize their stay more easily, making them less vulnerable to abuse and more likely to seek protection from state agencies.

The Russian government has an obligation under its own laws and international law to take these steps. It should have an interest in doing so, as these steps would create a better protected workforce. It should also be concerned about creating a better reputation for itself on labor migrants' rights in advance of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics to avoid the embarrassment the Chinese government was subjected to over the same issue.

[1] The countries are: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.

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