MOSCOW — In the wake of last weekend’s anti-immigrant riots in Moscow and the burning of a produce warehouse, the Russian government still seems to be holding on stubbornly to the idea that the problem is simply uncontrolled migration from the post-Soviet states.
The government has made frequent tweaks to the immigration laws in the hopes that it will resolve the problem, but experts say that focusing on immigration ignores the core issue: a true demand for labor, preferably cheap labor.
Even under the planned Soviet economy, there was always a demand for plentiful cheap labor. In Moscow, for example, “During the harvest season there weren't enough hands to harvest vegetables,” recalls Viktor Nechiporenko, a professor at the Russian Academy of Agriculture and Social Service.
This demand was one reason that university students were sent into the fields in Soviet times to harvest potatoes in the autumn. (Students in Uzbekistan harvested cotton.)
But factories needed year-round workers, and they were not always able to find enough among the city’s residents. Under the Communist regime, residents had to be “registered” in a particular city, so even Soviet citizens could not move freely to or from Moscow and other regions, and workers who came to the capital were only allowed to stay for a set amount of time.
Igor Kokin, the vice dean of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration says these temporary workers always lived in dense housing conditions, and the places where they stayed “were very dangerous, because there was always criminality among the temporary workers.”
The conflicts then, just as now, “are not really about nationality, but about class,” Kokin concludes.
Cash and carry
But during the Soviet Union, people came to Moscow and other major cities more for general opportunity than just for money. Today, instead, temporary workers come to the city often solely to earn money. And they are prepared to work for very little, because what they send or bring home is worth much more than it is in Moscow, explained former Labor Minister and current Duma deputy Sergei Kalashnikov.
All the changes in the immigration laws can’t change the competitive advantage that migrants have, making it essentially a question of labor relations not social policy, Kalashnikov says.
“The unions have long been suggesting that the authority to regulate all labor relations, including those related to foreign workers, should be given to one department — the Labor Ministry,” explains Nina Kusmina, a representative of the Federation of Independent Unions of Russia. “For example, there are a lot of Ukrainians who work in the aviation industry, and that doesn’t bother anyone.”
But in other industries, Kusmina says, “There are cooperative, extra-cheap foreign workers, who are prepared for a brutish life, who really do displace Russian workers.”
According to the unions’ estimates, there are around 3.5 million workers in the country without permission to work. “Really, there are only 3.5 million, not 8 million and not 15 million, like some politicians say,” says Rostislav Kapelyushkin, agreeing with the unions’ estimate. “That is only 5 percent of the Russian workforce.”
That kind of ratio, in his opinion, can’t strongly influence the labor market from a purely economic point of view. In addition, one-third of Russian workers have a university degree, and the rest have a high or mid-level specialty training. Considering the quality of the Russian workforce, Kapelyushkin considers the theory that migrant workers displace Russians to be untenable.
“Russian workers are gradually working their way up, taking high-quality jobs,” says Tatyana Maleva, head of the Institute of Social Analysis and Predictions. “Low-quality jobs are taken by migrants.” That’s why, based on her analysis, “Wherever there is hard, non-prestigious physical labor, there are few applications from native workers.”
Our Kremlin source, however, insists that the root problem behind the riots in Moscow is ethnic relations. And he says there will be an Oct. 22 meeting of the Council on Inter-Ethnic Relations in Ufa, the capital of the ethnically diverse southern Russian republic of Bashkortostan.