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Why Immigrant Workers Are Fleeing Russia

New restrictions and the plunging ruble change the calculus for visiting migrant workers, who have helped fuel Russia's past growth. Yet another sign of a fragile national economy.

Immigration officer conducting a search in St. Petersburg, Russia
Immigration officer conducting a search in St. Petersburg, Russia
Nina Vazhdaeva

MOSCOW — After the New Year's vacation, 40% of the workers at Mozhaisky Mushrooms were gone.

It turns out that the company's immigrant workers had traveled home for the holidays, but weren't able to return to Russia. "They were stopped at the border," explains Pavel Afonin, the director of the firm, based outside of Moscow. He says new rules for migrants is "a huge problem" for the company, where immigrants make up 90% of the work force, including about 60% Ukrainian, 25% Moldovan and the rest Uzbek or Tajik.

"It's both difficult and unprofitable for migrants to come back to their jobs in Russia," says Elena Xlaimovskaya, chief of the labor rights and immigration at Ernst & Young in St. Petersburg.

She cites Federal Migration Service statistics saying that there were 70% fewer immigrants entering Russia in January of this year than in January 2014. "First of all, there were changes in the law," she says. "Now you have to have a passport and authorization to work in Russia, and you have to pass an exam in Russian history, culture and language. Secondly, most migrants come to Russia so that they can send money home, and because of the exchange rate, rubles are often three to four times less valuable than before."

For the now-vacant jobs, Afonin once again hopes to hire immigrants because he says they are better workers than Russians, and are typically much more flexible. They can easily work overtime, he says, because they live in dorms at the complex. But it's not easy finding these workers because migrants who remain in the village prefer to find work in Moscow, not gather mushrooms in a neighboring village.

The cleaning ladies at Premier Service, where 80% of the employees are immigrants, haven't left yet, but they've told the managers that they plan to. "Usually, there is no lack of personnel in the winter," says the company's director, Andrei Kurkin. "But this year our workers are being snatched up, and we don't know what we'll do without enough workers."

Nearly one third of the laborers building the new stadium for the Zenit Saint Petersburg soccer team have left, putting the entire project in danger. There's also a serious shortage of textile workers.

An active search

Vladimir Telyatnikov, from the employment agency Brightmen Solutions, says that the company has seen a 20% increase in the demand for workers in positions that would traditionally have been filled by immigrants. "Especially logistics, manufacturing, cleaning companies and similar types of companies," he says.

Madina Musafarova supports her mother and two children back in Uzbekistan. She works as a cleaning lady, and until recently was able to send home $800 every month, allowing her family to build a house and even save for university studies. But she had to go home in the fall after Uzbekistan began changing all of its citizens' passports — and Musafarova wasn't able to return to Russia until after the new year. Now she says she'll probably move back to Uzbekistan permanently. In addition to having to pay for the Russian work permit and exams, Musafarova lost most of her clients when she was gone for so long, and those remaining can no longer afford her rate.

Migrants must pay $60 per month for work permits, as well as $80 for medical insurance and around $100 for the tests in Russian history, language and laws. There are currently 2.7 million immigrants working legally in Russia, and at least another 2.9 million believed to be working illegally. Experts agree that within the next year, at least 50% of those immigrants will leave the country.

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Workers in Moscow — Photo: openDemocracy

Now all these migrants are looking for alternatives to Russia, although it's clear that no single country can absorb those fleeing. "Last year, 80% to 90% of migrant workers from Central Asia preferred to work in Russia, and 10% to 15% chose Kazakhstan," explains Nikita Mkrtchyan, head of the Demographics Institute at the Higher School of Economics. "That might change, but not radically. Kazakhstan's economy can only handle about 20% of Central Asian migrant workers."

For Central Asian workers, the two most attractive countries to replace Russia are Turkey and South Korea. The pay in Turkey for a guest worker is about the same as in pre-crisis Moscow: $1,000 per month. In South Korea, workers are expected to work longer hours, generally 12 hours per day, but can make up to $2,000 per month.

Guest workers from Moldova and Ukraine are likely to go Southern Europe — Italy, Spain and Portugal.

Moment of reckoning

As hard as it will be for migrants to replace their Russian jobs, it will be even more difficult for the country to get by without these guest workers. "For a long time, the shortage of workers was solved by the flow of cheap migrant labor, and even if we account for the expected increase in unemployment, that shortage is not going to be filled," says Vladimir Bobyikin, a labor group president.

Both sides will have to find a compromise. At Mozhaisky Mushrooms, for example, employees received a 10% to 15% raise to compensate for the increased expenses of migrant legalization. Premier Service also increased wages by 15%. "Migrants won't work for less, and Russians won't either," says Kurkin, the director.

For some companies, the loss of migrant workers is more serious than a growing payroll. One company official says that all of its projects involving assembling and testing complex electronic equipment was handled by Ukrainian specialists. The company has been unable to find Russian citizens with the appropriate qualifications.

Not all industries, however, face these same problems in the shifting economy. "We always had a lot of phone calls from migrants who were looking for work," explains Mikhail Vinogradov, a taxi company owner. "Around November they stopped completely." Instead, more and more calls have started to come from Russians.

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Image of Colombian President Gustavo Petro speaking during a press conference in Buenos Aires on Jan 14, 2023

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Manuel Cortina/ZUMA
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