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RUSSIA: Migrant Workers Forced to Head Home

Kester Kenn Klomegah

MOSCOW, Jan 16 2009 (IPS) - The worsening recession is hitting foreign workers from the ex-Soviet republics far harder than it is affecting Russians.

Many migrant workers face dismissal following an order from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin last month that the 2009 labour quota for workers from the Commonwealth of Independent States (a loose union comprising ex-Soviet states, except the three Baltics republics Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) should be cut by 50 percent, or even more if circumstances warrant, to protect jobs for Russians.

That means the planned quota of four million could be slashed to two million or even less. In quick follow-up action, Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov declared that the quota for migrant workers in the capital will be halved this year to protect jobs for Muscovites.

But the new scenario is not clear. Putin noted that Russian workers are not keen on jobs currently taken up by foreign migrant workers, and that “the labour market situation remains complicated.”

Several nationalist groups such as the Movement Against Illegal Migration, and patriotic youth groups like United Russia’s Young Guard have persistently called for jobs to be reserved for Russians, and for migrant workers to be expelled.

In earlier years, quota was increased significantly to meet demand for cheap labour in Russia’s growing economy. But companies are now laying off thousands of migrant workers in manual jobs such as construction. A labour law passed two years ago banned employment for migrant workers in retail trade.

“As far as I know, Putin’s decree does not directly reduce the quota of 3.9 million migrant workers,” Nilim Baruah, chief technical adviser for Regional Migration Programme at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Moscow told IPS. “However while earlier there was a provision to increase the quota (by 30 percent) depending on labour market needs, the decree allows both an increase or decrease (by 50 percent) depending on labour market assessment.” Given the recessionary trend, the new orders allow in effect for a 50 percent cut.

Labour migration follows an assessment of foreign labour needs and the establishment of employment quotas for visa free countries (the CIS, except Georgia and Turkmenistan) and the rest. The economies of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine depend heavily on migrant labour remittances from oil-rich Russia.

Besides this processed migration, at least five million foreigners are believed to live and work in Russia illegally. While remittances constitute a major source of income for the population in the ex-Soviet republics, many migrants have complained of human rights abuses, exploitation and lack of security. A study by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) reveals that these migrant workers often face extremely low levels of social and personal security.

The leaders of several central Asian ex-Soviet republics have urged the Russian leadership to improve working conditions, and honour their citizens’ rights on Russian territory.

Now, many of the workers face lack of security in employment itself. Baruah believes that “non-payment of due wages – an increase since the crisis – is an abuse of labour rights, and the current layoffs are not consistent with employment contracts and the labour code.”

The new quotas might just encourage illegal work and further erode labour rights. “This decision will shift the balance between regular and irregular migration,” Elena Tjurukanova, researcher at the Institute of Social and Economic Problems of the National Population at the Russian Academy of Sciences told IPS. “And of course, those who have to stay illegally have no rights.”

Pyotr Bizyukov from the Centre for Social and Labour Rights says the rise in unemployment has hit an explosive level.

“Russian businesses started laying off staff too early, dismissing people ‘just in case,’ although their problems are not catastrophic,” Bizyukov said in an interview published in the widely circulated Nezavisimaya Gazeta and Novye Izvestia newspapers.

Despite the economic crisis, Baruah says Russia still needs foreign labour, and will continue to face relative labour shortages. These would be jobs that involve hard work for low pay, that Russian nationals do not want.

Early this month, President Dmitry Medvedev signed a law boosting state support for Russians who have been made redundant. The law further gives the executive cabinet powers to take extra measures to ease tension on the labour market, such as a budget for re-training workers who risk job losses, their resettlement in other regions, and funding public works that could create jobs.

The government has set aside 1.8 billion dollars to support unemployed Russians. The money comes from a Reserve Fund of 137 billion dollars, mostly from oil revenues.

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