Special report on labour migrants in Russia

Over the past five years, Russia has become the primary destination for labour migrants from Central Asia. Fuelled by poverty and unemployment, labour experts say the number of unskilled workers from the region in major Russian provincial cities continues to rise, with construction firms and service providers keen on hiring cheap illegal labour.

"The rapid growth in labour migration in the second half of the 1990s has slowed a little, but it is not stabilising yet," Yelena Tyuryukanova, a social researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences, told IRIN in Moscow.


According to a recent study by the International Labour Organization (ILO) on illegal labour in Russia, there were 3.5 to 5 million illegal labour migrants in the country, mainly from Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries, including Central Asia. Tyuryukanova, who headed the project, estimated that around 30 to 40 percent of these workers - up to 2 million people - may come from Central Asia, with Tajiks - among the poorest in the region - leading the list.

A separate report by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) says that more than 600,000 Tajik labour migrants currently live in Russia, almost 10 percent of Tajikistan's population.

Nurali Pulatov, a 24-year-old resident of Garm district in Tajikistan, is one of them. He works for a construction firm in the Russian capital, Moscow, earning some US $300 per month. He regularly makes remittances to his family back in Garm - an essential part of their livelihood.

A recent study by the ILO on the status of Tajik labour migrants in the construction industry estimated that some 85 percent of Tajik illegal labour migrants were going to Russia, with a quarter of them heading for Moscow.

Nurali's fellow countryman, Ismoil Sharipov, told IRIN in the Russian capital that economic hardship forced them to seek temporary jobs in Russia despite the harsh climate and the risk of exploitation by employers. "The main reason is to earn a living, to feed the family," the migrant said.


Echoing that view, Hakim Muhabbatov, a Moscow-based expert on Tajik labour migrants, told IRIN that the large flow of Tajiks into the country could be attributed to poor social and economic conditions in the country, still reeling from five years of civil war in the 1990s.

According to the World Bank, Tajikistan is the poorest of the former Soviet republics, with over 80 percent of its population living below the national poverty line. Salaries average just US $11 a month, while the minimum wage is a mere $2, figures that make it hard to understand how people survive. By comparison, an average monthly salary in Russia is around $120, with those in Moscow being more than $500.

Tajik labour migrants in Russia are generally aged between 16 and 40, with 75-80 per cent being men. Most of these migrants do unskilled jobs that Russians are reluctant to take up, such as work at markets, construction sites, food services and as farm labour.


The second largest group of Central Asian labour migrants in Russia comes from Tajikistan's northern neighbour, Kyrgyzstan. Janybek, 32, came to Moscow to work as a construction worker together with his two friends from the southern Kyrgyz province of Batken more than two years ago. Now he works cleaning streets in one of Moscow's poorer districts. "I plan to bring my wife here," said Janybek. "I have this job and it pays $200 [a month], which is quite good. As long as we have such an opportunity we will keep working here".

He is not alone. Some analysts estimate that more than 500,000 labour migrants from Kyrgyzstan are currently working in Russia. However, Askar Beshimov, the consul-general of the Kyrgyz Embassy in Russia, claimed that their numbers were no more than 30,000.

Dairbek Aliev, another Kyrgyz labour migrant, arrived in Moscow almost a year ago. "First, I was hired by Donstroy [a local construction company], where I worked for seven months but was paid only for two," the 21-year-old lamented. "All the workers there - amongst whom were Tajiks, Turkmen and Uzbeks - were hired informally without labour agreements," he said, adding that many were required to work the first two or three months for free in return for the 'employment' opportunity. "This was kind of a bribe for hiring us to work for them," Dairbek explained.


As for Uzbekistan, although the precise number of labour migrants working in Russia is not known, the number of such migrants leaving for South Korea, Russia and Kazakhstan from Central Asia's most populous nation has reportedly increased. According to the Uzbek Ministry of Labour, more than 600,000 to 700,000 Uzbek citizens are working in various countries. Some experts suggest that Russia's Samara province, 600 km southeast of the capital, may alone host up to 24,000 Uzbek migrants.

Ismailovsky park's open air market is home to many merchant labour migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus

They are dispersed over the whole of European Russia, says Nikolay Mitrohin, a representative of the Moscow-based Memorial human rights organisation. Primarily engaged in agricultural, general services (restaurants and cafes), bazaars and construction work, Uzbek migrants find the pay in Russia quite favourable compared to the average ($20-30 a month) back home.

The numbers of Turkmen labour migrants in Russia, by contrast, are limited given the reclusive policy of the Turkmen government and severe restrictions on travelling abroad. Since the autumn of 1994 all transport routes, except for air links, were closed between the two countries. Additionally, the controversial political status of ethnic Russians living in Turkmenistan has contributed to a fall in migration from the energy-rich, but increasingly poor, Central Asian state.

Experts comment that, unlike ordinary citizens, only those who work in the gas and petroleum refining industries in western Turkmenistan are able to travel to the Russian cities of Tyumen and Yamal by plane. Nevertheless, there are still many Turkmen migrants who work in Russia's booming construction sector, particularly in larger urban areas like Moscow. And while their status is no different from their counterparts from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, reliable statistics on their actual numbers remain hard to come by.


Meanwhile, Kazakhstan - the leader in Central Asia in terms of economic growth - has the lowest level of labour migration to Russia. "Kazakhstan is the country which has the fewest number of migrants per capita amongst Central Asian countries," Andrey Grozin, head of the Central Asia and Kazakhstan department at the Moscow-based Institute of Commonwealth of Independent States (ICIS), told IRIN, citing comparatively higher social and economic growth indicators as the main contributing factor.

Kazakhstan has enjoyed annual economic growth of some 10 percent over the past years, boosted mainly by the oil industry. The average monthly salary in the largest Central Asian country is the highest among the CIS countries, almost $170.

However, a number of highly skilled Kazakh labour migrants can be found in Russia's petroleum refining industry in eastern Siberia region. Additionally, Kazakhstan, just as Russia, hosts a substantial number of migrants coming from neighbouring Central Asian countries.


The majority of the Central Asian labour migrants were working illegally, Tyuryukanova of the ISEPP explained, leaving the possibility of abuse even stronger.

Sultan Sharipov, a resident of Kalanak village in Tajikistan's Garm district, working for the Donstroy construction company, told IRIN in Moscow that they worked under very hard conditions. "I have to work for 16 to 18 hours a day like other migrants. The work is very hard and the bigger part of my salary is taken by the foreman," the 22-year-old complained, adding that the foreman was seizing up to 70 percent of builders' salaries, paying only some $250. Concurring, his friend Nurali Polatov said: "The work is very hard. We toil for 14 to 16 hours a day."

There were serious violations of migrants' rights ranging from forced labour to debt bondage, Tyuryukanova maintained, adding that most Central Asian labour migrants were involved in manual labour in Russian cities. "The work conditions are often equal to slavery," she explained, adding that they were under pressure from both employers and the police.

"As many as 20 percent of illegal migrant workers [in Russia] can be subject to some form of coercion and forced labour. If that is the case this could amount to as many as 1 million people altogether," Roger Plant, head of the Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour at the ILO, told IRIN from Geneva.

According to the ILO, some 31 percent of illegal migrant workers were estimated to be under physical restraint for at least some of the time in the Moscow region. "But one of the particular problems is removing identity documents or compulsion to work without pay," Plant said.

The ILO study on forced labour estimated that some 24 percent of migrants from the sample survey would be compelled to work without pay at some stage and a very large number, around 62 percent, would be compelled to work overtime without pay.

Tyuryukanova said that given the enormous level of corruption in Russia, there had been cases when migrants working in construction were promised payment upon completion of the job but did not receive it. And the worrying trend was that this practice was becoming institutionalised, with Tajiks from Central Asia facing the highest level of exploitation, she added.

Some human rights activists and experts said that a lack of awareness among the migrants was contributing to this abuse. Gauhar Juraeva, the head of the Migration and Rights human rights group in Moscow providing legal support to migrants, mainly to Tajiks, told IRIN that the problems they often face indicated the lack of awareness regarding their rights. "Most of the illegal migrants are uneducated people and hundreds of thousands of them are without legal protection. I think this creates good conditions for new forms of slavery to flourish," she said.

Still another problem migrants face is the risk of deportation. And while most illegal migrants keep a low profile in Russia in order to avoid problems with the police, hundreds of Tajik illegal workers have been deported over recent years.

"Every day we lead negotiations with the police departments of Moscow and Moscow region to release arrested Tajik migrants. There are people kept under arrest for more than one month. In most cases, militia workers demand money for their release," a Tajik migrant who didn't want to be identified, told IRIN.


Meanwhile, there are conflicting views on whether labour migration is good or bad for the Russian economy. Some say that migrants deprive local Russians of jobs, making competition more intense. But others maintain that migrants usually do the jobs that locals themselves are reluctant to do.

According to Tyuryukanova, in some industries, on average 40 percent of jobs were done by migrants and often a migrant took over following a local workers' refusal to fill the job. "This is a situation where a certain niche is firmly occupied by the migrants," she explained. But for the rest there could be competition for jobs between migrants and locals, she conceded.

"They do not come to Russia with the purpose of staying here long-term or permanently. The results of our surveys indicate that these migrants come here with short-term goals, related to earning money from temporary jobs," said Svetlana Soboleva, a scientist conducting research on Central Asian migrants in Siberia.


Given the magnitude of the problem, many analysts say that the solution lies in legalising the status of migrants. So far, Kyrgyzstan is the only country in Central Asia which has taken steps towards solving the migrants' problems at a bilateral level. In September 2003 an agreement between the two governments around legitimising Kyrgyz labour migrants in Russia was signed, but it is yet to be ratified by the Russian Duma (parliament). According to the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry, the agreement should, in many ways, positively affect the situation with Kyrgyz labour migrants seeking jobs in Russia compared to migrants from other countries.

A labour migrant from Central Asia cleaning a Moscow street

As for the Russian side, measures to improve legislation and enforcement, including cracking down on corruption, remain crucial, observers say. "The first thing to do is to improve the legislation as there are lots of gaps," Tyuryukanova noted, adding that the fine for employing an illegal worker was less than the duty an employer would pay for legally hiring one. "It is easier for an employer to pay the fine right away than to gather and submit a pile of necessary documents. Moreover, he may not get that permission," she explained, adding that doing everything legally requires a lot of money and time. "So all these legislative issues need to be changed," she said.

As for the issue of corruption, Tyuryukanova urged the authorities to crack down on it urgently. "A crusade against it is necessary. It is difficult to say otherwise because it impedes many things. There are jobs, but there are no legitimate or normal ways to fulfill them [by the migrants]."

Also, Plant emphasised the importance of an integrated approach to the issue. "We believe that you need to have an integrated approach against trafficking and forced labour in both originating and destination areas. In the longer term, obviously you need better managed migration, you need to have very close monitoring of recruitment and employment agencies to make sure that trafficking for forced labour exploitation is not carried out by criminal groups linked to organised crime," he said.

But you do need to have some form of organisation of migrant workers themselves. In the destination areas it is a question of an enormous amount of awareness raising, the ILO official maintained.

Russia has been positioning itself over the past three years as a recipient country as it needs more labour, given the predicted drop in its own population by as much as 10 million after 2006. "But this policy remains more declaratory and nothing is being done in terms of adaptation or integration of migrants or at least providing security to them," one researcher said.

Meanwhile, despite the risk of being harassed by the police, exploited by employers or deported, many Central Asian migrants still opt to go to Russia. "Even if they send me back 10 times, I will return to Russia again and again. I just have to go," Karim Sultanov, an experienced builder who has been deported from Russia earlier, told IRIN in the northern Tajik city of Khujand.