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Immigrant workers have few rights in Russia

Every year, million of migrant workers from the former Soviet republics arrive in Russia. The economic situation in their home countries is so dire, they'll take any job they can get.

A worker shoveling asphalt

Illegal workers have little money and even fewer rights

Russia is a land of hope, at least for the 12 million migrant workers who arrive each year from poor countries in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. The nation has the second highest number of guest workers in the world. A recent study by the World Bank estimated the country had 12.3 million migrant workers, but the Russian goverment puts the number closer to five million.

The immigrant workers come mainly from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova and Ukraine. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the economies in these countries have struggled to take off. Tajikistan, for example, remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with a third of its large enterprises either out of date or dysfunctional. Each year, more than 700,000 Tajiks leave for Russia with hopes of earning money.

No other choice

Once in Russia, the impoverished foreigners will take almost any job, often working in construction, sweeping streets, or gardening. It's back-breaking physical labor, up to fourteen hours a day. The average paycheck is the equivalent of 300 euros ($420) per month, but a big chunk goes towards housing and meals. Only by living extremely frugally are migrant workers able to send money back home.

A migrant worker

Russia is dependent on its foreign workers

Yet somehow, they manage. In 2009, Tajik migrant workers sent 1.5 billion euros ($2 billion) back to their families - that's nearly 40 of percent of the gross national product of Tajikistan.

Most foreigners from former Soviet Republics are in Russia illegally. In order to curb the influx of workers during the current economic crisis, the Russian state only awards work permits to one million migrant workers a year. Nevertheless, each year up to twelve million migrants make their way to Russia.

It's pretty easy for workers to enter Russia initially, but if they overstay the three month grace period without getting a visa, they become illegal and are often exploited by their employers.

Slaves without rights

The illegal workers are virtually without rights, and accordingly are often victims of fraud. Gavchar Jurayeva, head of the human rights organization, "Migration and Law" in Moscow, speaks of "voluntary slavery."

The workers, she says, are bought by intermediaries in Tajikistan, and promised "mountains of gold." Once in Russia, the foreign workers are sold to the next agent.

Migrant workers on the job

The average worker earns less than 100 euros per week

"They are virtually slaves, because they are dependent on the intermediaries, who take their passports until the debts are paid off," said Jurayeva.

The head of the Moscow Human Rights Centre "Memorial", Svetlana Gannushkina, speaks of a "systematic hunt" by the militia targeted at guest workers. Every year, about half a million working migrants are deported from Russia, and given a five year travel ban. Migrant workers are often blackmailed by the police during passport controls.

Right-wing violence

A victim of xenophobic violence

Guest workers are often victims of xenophobic violence


Corrupt officials aren't the only ones pursuing migrant workers. They are also hunted by Russian neo-Nazis. Each year, up to 600 attacks on foreigners are registered in Russia. One in six cases is fatal.

Russia is dependent on migrant labor from the former Soviet Republics. Demographic experts believe that the nation's population will shrink over the next twenty years, reducing the number of working people to twelve million - or 17 percent of the economically active population. Vladimir Mukomel, a sociologist at the Russian Academy of Sciences, says that given the aging population: "The work of immigrants from the former Soviet Union is only alternative for the country."

Author: Roman Schell (smh)
Editor: Susan Houlton

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