Crippled Russian economy unable to lure back Central Asian migrants

By Caravanserai and AFP

Labourers work at a housing construction site in Moscow on March 12. Russian companies are forced to pay local workers higher wages in order to fill the migrant labour gap. [Yuri Kadobnov/AFP]

Labourers work at a housing construction site in Moscow on March 12. Russian companies are forced to pay local workers higher wages in order to fill the migrant labour gap. [Yuri Kadobnov/AFP]

MOSCOW -- Russian construction companies are struggling with an acute labour shortage as cheap foreign workers lost their jobs and fled the country -- and Russia slammed the borders closed -- during the coronavirus pandemic last year.

For years, Russia has relied on migrant labourers to do some of the hardest and worst paying jobs. But now, millions of foreign labourers are stuck in their home countries due to pandemic-induced border closures and are unable or reluctant to return to unfavourable working conditions.

Almost half of all migrants living in Russia before the pandemic left the country last year, according to the Interior Ministry.

Many were blocked from returning to Russia to work by tightened border restrictions, sparking the acute labour shortage, especially in the construction and agriculture sectors.

Russia is grappling with a labour shortage as migrant workers face difficulties or are reluctant to return to the country. A labourer works at a housing construction site in Moscow on March 12. [Yuri Kadabnov/AFP]

Russia is grappling with a labour shortage as migrant workers face difficulties or are reluctant to return to the country. A labourer works at a housing construction site in Moscow on March 12. [Yuri Kadabnov/AFP]

Others were reluctant to return due to the discrimination and abuse migrant workers are typically subjected to in Russia.

Moscow recently simplified entry requirements for migrant workers in a bid to bring them back, but rights activists describe the move as a self-serving step to shore up industries saddled with the higher cost of local labour.

Meanwhile, many companies, including Moscow-based developer Granelle, have had to adapt to doing business without them.

In pre-pandemic days, the company typically employed workers from Armenia, Ukraine, Belarus, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

"Migrants worked until the end of the year, then they went home for the holidays, and now it's problematic for them to come back," said Vitaly Lychits, Granelle's deputy director of construction.

"We're hiring workers from Russian provinces even though we have to factor in extra labour costs," he said.

Alarm over labour shortages

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, Russia's labour force comprised about 10 million migrant workers and roughly 70 million Russian employees, according to estimates from migration analysts.

At the height of the pandemic, many migrant workers were stranded in Russia for days or even weeks, unable to return to their home countries after the government suspended all international flights to and from Russia in late March.

Flights eventually resumed, but haphazardly.

Russian airlines also refused to reimburse passengers for their suddenly worthless tickets, leaving migrants from Central Asia quite literally out on the street -- without work or any source of income.

Given that history, activists warn about Russia's renewed "hospitality" towards migrant workers, even after President Vladimir Putin in January ordered the government to simplify entry requirements.

Almost 1.5 million migrants working in construction had not returned after border closures were put in place last March, Deputy Prime Minister for Construction and Regional Development Marat Khusnullin said in late December.

Roughly half of Granelle's workers now come from Russian provinces, but their wages are up to 20% higher than those of foreign labourers, said Lychits.

"The state is actively working to simplify procedures for attracting migrant workers, including issuing electronic permits," he said.

But progress has been slow.

Only about 14,000 foreign workers were able to reach Russian construction sites between the end of 2020 and February even with the simplified procedures.

Difficult conditions, low pay

Groups advancing the rights of migrant workers point to a silver lining in the labour shortage.

"Wages have increased pretty significantly" -- from 20% to 100% depending on the sector, said Vadim Kozhenov, president of the Federation of Migrants of Russia.

Even though there are allegedly fewer instances of abuse of migrant workers, who for years have complained that Russian employers cheat them out of their pay, he said, many remain sceptical that the improved work conditions will hold once borders re-open.

Other hardships for migrants in Russia include discrimination, demands for bribes by police, and beatings by civilians and even by police.

The labour shortages should not be blamed on the pandemic alone, said Yulia Florinskaya, a researcher at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration.

"Some workers quit their jobs because of difficult conditions and low pay," she said.

The number of foreign guest workers has been steadily declining since 2015 because of Russia's deteriorating economy and weakening currency, analysts say.

In the long term, Russia risks facing a major lack of manpower as many migrants seek work in Europe, Turkey and Iran, said demographer Yury Krupnov.

"There is a general problem of technological backwardness," he said. "Employers want to endlessly use cheap unskilled workers. And there are no signs that something will change."

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12 Comment(s)

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The worst thing is that they don't pay migrants; their employers know migrants won't be able to complain to anyone. I know that from personal experience. I worked on setting up patient lifts for people with disabilities. The client, UKRS, and general contractors "Mosproekt 2" LLC, "StroyKapitalInvest" LLC, made advance payments only, and that was it. I tried to file a complaint with the Moscow Labour Inspection Department, but they told me that I should have gone to the international court as a foreigner. It's too funny.


Russia wants to mend fences with the former Soviet republics but does not want to accept migrants. [Russia] raised airfares. [Departures are] two times a week. What happened? What's the ordinary working man guilty of? Yes, now Europe is announcing it has job opportunities. What they are offering is much more than Russia does. Russia, change your attitude towards migrants. We used to be all together like one family...


Russia is already unable to build and create anything without Asians.


They took as good as they gave. Moscow and other Russian cities will soon drown in dirt without migrant workers. Thank Zhirinovsky, Fedorov and the likes for that.


Lies and a misunderstanding of the topic! First off, [Russia] can't lure back migrants because we are still not permitted to enter Russia! I've been waiting for my departure for a year to get a Russian passport and take the oath! Everything is ready there, but acquiring Russian citizenship is not a proper reason to leave the country! I asked the Russian Embassy to Uzbekistan several times, but the answer is always the same. Migrant workers are going to Russia on charter flights. And the flights became very expensive. A one-way ticket to Russia [costs] like a vacation tour to Egypt or Turkey. This is what you are not thinking about! Start scheduled flights to all Russian cities for reasonable prices; [migrants] will be there in a jiffy.


First, the improvement in Uzbekistan's economic development has caused the number of Central Asian migrants to dwindle. Most migrant workers were Uzbek. Now lots of jobs are available in their country; and that is making Uzbeks stay at home. It's a direct indicator pointing at the worsening of Russia's economic development, and the effect of the sanctions that are making Russian living standards comparable to Uzbekistan's. But Russians' mean attitude is etched in the memories of Uzbeks; therefore, any allied rapprochement is utopian.


That means they will be coming from Russia to work in Uzbekistan


Of course, if there's no salary and abuse is rampant, it's better to work in other countries. Poland and other European countries hire workers and offer $800 and more for light packing work.


Czechia and Poland are each giving 1,000 Euro.


Actually you are writing about this second time. But if borders will open everybody will go back. Because it is problematic to find a job in Central Asia. And if one finds a job they can not get the payment. Because laws don't work in Central Asia.


Come on! You made me laugh; they work big time!


These bast-shoe-wearing blockheads already can't do anything without help from migrants.