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RUSSIA: Waiting for a Paycheck That Never Comes

Marina Litvinsky

WASHINGTON, Feb 10 2009 (IPS) - Migrant construction workers in Russia face widespread abuse by their employers, says a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released Tuesday, including withholding wages, failing to provide required contracts, and unsafe working conditions at construction sites across the country.

"Migrant construction workers come to Russia for decent jobs and instead find violence and exploitation," said Jane Buchanan, a researcher in the Europe and Central Asia division of HRW and author of the 130-page report, "'Are You Happy to Cheat Us?' Exploitation of Migrant Construction Workers in Russia".

"Russia should undertake rigorous reforms to protect migrant construction workers from these serious human rights abuses," she said.

Migrant workers told HRW how employers in Russia failed to provide the promised salaries and conditions, and instead cheated them of wages, forced them to work excessively long hours, threatened and physically abused them, and provided substandard on-site living conditions and unsafe working conditions.

Most migrant workers come from other countries of the former Soviet Union, looking to escape poverty and unemployment. Citizens of most of those countries can enter Russia without a visa.

HRW said that almost none of the workers interviewed had been given contracts, as required by Russian law. The absence of a contract makes migrants vulnerable to wage and other abuses, and limits workers' opportunities to seek assistance from official bodies in cases of abuse.

Even when they do not receive their monthly pay as promised, some migrant workers continue on their construction sites, hoping that their employer will pay them.

Azamat A. (the report uses psuedonyms to protect the idenities of workers), from Kyrgyzstan, oversaw a brigade of about 40 men working on a large construction project at a university in Moscow in 2007. They worked nearly three months, but were paid very irregularly.

Azamat A. told HRW, "Many workers left when they were not paid, but we needed to get paid, so we stayed on and continued to work."

The subcontractor then promised to pay one large sum after completion of the work. When this payment was also withheld, Azamat A. and other brigadiers continued to live on the site for about three months, hoping to receive money owed to them. In December 2007, Azamat A. finally gave up waiting and returned to Kyrgyzstan. The subcontractor still owes him and his workers some one million rubles (42,220 U.S. dollars).

"This kind of exploitation is so pervasive that workers often labour for months, waiting and hoping to be paid," said Buchanan. "They recognise that their chances for decent, reliable pay won't be much better with another employer."

Some workers interviewed were refused pay promised them, but stayed on the job because employers had confiscated their passports and they had no way to get home. Others who refused to work without pay were physically abused.

HRW spoke with one of the victims, Faizullo F., from Samarkand, who went to Orel in September 2006 to work in a car wash. When he arrived his passport was taken away, allegedly to arrange residency registration and work permits.

According to Faizullo F., 40 men lived together above one of the car washes where there was one bathroom and no kitchen. The facility was guarded, and the workers were not allowed to leave it after work. The men worked from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. After one and a half months of work, the employer told Faizullo F. and the others that they would not be receiving the agreed-upon salary, but only 18 percent of the revenues from the work completed.

Faizullo F. recounted an incident about one month later in which he was beaten so badly that he had to be hospitalised:

"On the night of June 15, I was called outside… They brought me to the forest and beat me with guns until I lost consciousness. They brought me back and started to beat the others. There were a lot of them. They had truncheons and wooden planks. They gathered everybody and took away our cell phones. This continued for three days…"

HRW conducted interviews in nine cities and villages in Tajikistan in February and March 2008 and in nine cities and villages in Kyrgyzstan in March 2008. In Russia, HRW conducted interviews in Moscow, Ekaterinburg and Sverdlovsk oblast, Krasnodar, St. Petersburg, and Zvenigorod and other towns in Moscow oblast between April and August and again in October.

The locations in Russia were selected because, according to Russian Federal Migration Service data, Moscow, Moscow oblast, Sverdlovsk oblast, Krasnodar krai, and St. Petersburg are five of the seven cities and provinces receiving the highest numbers of migrant workers.

Three HRW researchers, including one native Russian speaker and two fluent Russian speakers, conducted the majority of the 146 in-depth interviews on which the report is based. Those interviewed were migrant workers who were working or who had worked in the construction sector in Russia in the past two years.

According to the World Bank, Russia is home to one of the largest migrant populations in the world, second only to the United States. Although estimates vary widely, some 4 to 9 million of those migrants are workers, 80 percent of whom come from nine countries of the former Soviet Union with which Russia maintains a visa-free regime. Approximately 40 percent of migrant workers are employed in the highly unregulated construction sector. Migrant workers in Russia have a considerable impact on the economies of both Russia and their home countries. Experts estimate that migrant workers contribute eight to nine percent of Russian GDP. According to World Bank statistics, outward remittances from Russia in 2006 were over 11.4 billion dollars.

In addition to the cases documented in the report, a 2006 study of 442 migrant workers in three regions of Russia conducted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) also documented numerous cases of forced labour and trafficking into forced labour. A 2008 International Organisation for Migration (IOM) study examined the experiences of 685 men trafficked from Belarus and Ukraine to Russia, overwhelmingly in the construction sector.

HRW called on Russia and the home countries of the migrant workers to work together to put an end to the abuse. They asked the Russian government to work to ensure rigorous labour inspections, prosecution of abusive employers, and effective regulation of employment agencies. Accessible complaint mechanisms for victims should be developed, along with timely and effective investigations into allegations of abuse.

The home countries of migrant workers in Russia are asked to provide more help when their citizens face abuse in Russia, to cooperate with Russian authorities on investigations and prosecutions of abusive employers in Russia, and to establish clear and rigorous regulations for employment agencies that recruit in their countries.

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