Labor Migrants’ Departure Hitting Russians Where They Live

February 18, 2015
Workers in Moscow. Photo by Ilya Varlamov.

Staunton, February 18 – Many Russians have long been accustomed to thinking of immigrant workers as undesirable alines, but the departure of so many of them as a result of the economic crisis and new government restrictions on immigration is beginning to affect Russians where they live – and some of them may soon be changing their tune.

On the one hand, the outflow of immigrant workers is pushing the price of housing and services up as employers are forced to pay higher wages to get work done. And on the other, when employers cannot find anyone to do the work that the labor migrants had been doing, that work, including sweeping the streets of snow, simply isn’t getting done at all.

That has led Igor Albin, the vice governor of St. Petersburg, to suggest that residents of his city should stop complaining about snow removal, pick up shovels, and get to work, a proposal that recalls Marie Antoinette’s advice almost as much as the suggestion by another Russian official that Russians should respond to rising food prices by eating less.

As Mariya Portnyagina points out in the current issue of Ogonyok, Russian officials have tried to downplay the size of the outflow of migrants, suggesting alternatively that it is seasonal or that the labor migrans who have left Russia now will return when they find that no other country is ready to take them in.

But the size of the outflow is now so large and its impact on particular sectors of the Russian economy so obvious that officials and experts are now devoting more of their time to explaining what the impact of immigrant workers on the Russian economy really is and why Russia will have little choice but to work to attract them back.

Nikita Mkrtchyan, a sociologist at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that it is not the case that labor migrants have been working for less income and thus depressing wages for Russians. They simply work at lower-paying jobs. But they often work longer hours and without taking sick days than Russians do and thus cost employers less.

But the days when such people were arriving in virtually unlimited numbers are over, and in fact at the present time, the labor migrants who have been in Russia are going home and not coming back at least anytime soon.

Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz diaspora leaders say that as a result of the declining exchange rate for the ruble and new requirements for those working in Russia, many of their co-nationals have concluded that working in Russia is not only unprofitable but increasingly unpleasant and are looking elsewhere.

Trains and planes are leaving Russia for Central Asia full and coming back half empty, clear evidence that what these diaspora leaders are saying is true, Portnyagina says.

According to Sergey Abashin, a professor at St. Petersburg’s European University, the impact of the declining value of the ruble is less significant in the decisions of the labor migrants than are the new requirements the Russian government has imposed concerning Russian language knowledge and the payment for patents to work in Russia.

In any case, the labor migrants are leaving, and Moscow does not know where to find more. Vyacheslav Postavnin, the head of the Migration for the 21st Century Foundation, says that migrant workers currently form 8 to 15 percent of the Russian workforce and are responsible for six to 20 percent of its GDP.

“Demographic predictions,” he points out, “show that dependence on gastarbeiters will only increase.” Postavnin says that the best hope for Russia is that those who are leaving now will discover that no other country wants to take them in and so will conclude that they have no choice but to return to Russia, whatever the new official requirements are.

But it is far from clear, the Ogonyok journalist suggests, whether ordinary Russians are going to be very happy with the situation the departure of the migrants workers is already creating. They are already being missed in construction, trade, and housing services, and officials and businesses are finding it hard to fill the jobs they have left.

In Kazan, for example, some 15 to 20 percent of janitorial positions are now empty. In Sverdlovsk Region, the shortage of workers has become so severe that officials are deploying prisoners from local camps to work in the cities. And in Moscow, people are increasingly angry that the streets aren’t being kept clean.

Some may take to heart the proposal of the St. Petersburg vice governor that they should clean the streets themselves. But others are likely to respond in other ways, increasingly infuriated by what some of them are certain to view as the incompetence of officials in dealing with migrants.