Letter From Russia: A boom that depends on migrant workers

Posted in Russia | 24-Oct-07 | Author: Celestine Bohlen| Source: International Herald Tribune

KHOTKOVO, Russia: Slapping a coat of paint on the pedestal of a bust of Lenin in a provincial Russian town may not be much of a job, but Kuram, 49, says it beats making the equivalent of $16 a month back home in Uzbekistan.

"If things were better there, I wouldn't be here," said the tractor driver, at work in Khotkovo, 60 kilometers, or about 40 miles, northeast of Moscow. He declined to give his last name for fear of running afoul of the Russian immigration authorities.

Russia's booming economy is luring more and more people like Kuram, who are willing to take jobs its own citizens can't or won't do. The country's increasingly capitalistic society is creating greater wealth and aspirations, forcing Russia to confront a problem more familiar in the West: integrating foreign workers who often face discrimination and harassment.

A shrinking work force complicates the situation, as oil-powered economic growth fuels demand for offices, apartments, hotels and shopping malls - along with people to build and maintain them.

"There is such a deficit of labor all over Russia, just at a time when Russia has woken up," said Vladimir Mikhailov, head of construction for NTT, a company based outside Khotkovo that owns farms, a bank and machine-tool factories.

Living in a trailer in Khotkovo, Kuram earns about 7,500 rubles, or $300, a month doing odd jobs.

He and his two co-workers, also from Uzbekistan, are among about 4.9 million labor migrants sweeping streets, washing dishes, digging ditches and doing menial building-site work, according to figures from Moscow's Russian Economics Institute. Unofficial estimates put the number at 10 million, most of them from the former Soviet republics.

The migrant workers, many with darker skin or Asian facial features, are a visible presence in major cities, and not always welcome - even though the Russian Federation is a multiethnic country, with more than 100 non-Slavic nationalities, including Tatars, Bashkirs and others.

Attacks against foreigners, some fatal, have been rising. Sova, a Moscow-based group that tracks hate crimes, reports 435 victims of race-based assaults in Russia in 2005 and 575 in 2006. In the first four months of this year, there were 209, a third higher than the same period last year.

Rashid, a Tajik who has lived off and on in Moscow for 12 years and refused to give his last name, says he resents the racism. As an example, he cites an April law barring foreigners from working as vendors in Russian markets.

"First, the Russians occupied us, and now they ban us from handling money," said the taxi driver, who returns to Tajikistan every three months so he can renew the Russian stamp in his passport each time he comes back.

He, like other migrants, makes the journey because he needs the work. The Russian government in the last year has come to the grudging conclusion that it needs them, too.

Economic growth in Russia has averaged 6.7 percent a year since 1999. Meanwhile, Russia's population fell to 143.8 million in 2006 from 148.7 million in 1992 and continues to slide by almost one million people a year, government statistics show. The decline is dramatic in the work force, which, according to the Health and Social Development Ministry, will drop 12 percent to 65.5 million by 2010 from 74.5 million now because of low fertility rates and the high number of alcohol-related deaths.

Mikhailov says 40 percent of his farm and construction workers are foreigners, many of them Muslims - who don't drink.

"To get Russians to work with their hands is very difficult," said the Ukrainian-born manager. "Those between 30 and 40, who could work, are already off on their own. Those who couldn't are drinking now. That's the truth. Why hide it?"

Life expectancy for Russian men is 59 years, two years less than for Uzbek men, even though Russia's per capita income is six times Uzbekistan's $2,000, according to the CIA World Factbook.

Russia is home to the second-largest number of immigrants in the world, after the United States. During the convulsions that followed the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, millions of people crossed new national borders as ethnic Russians returned from the republics, joined by millions of undocumented Tajiks, Uzbeks, Ukrainians, Moldovans and others.

For people like Kuram, getting into Russia isn't difficult: They don't need a visa for the first three months. The hard part is working legally. Until this year, almost all foreign employees in Russia were part of the "grey" economy. They were exploited by businesses, paid miserable wages and were vulnerable to harassment by the Russian police.

To give them legal status, the Russian Parliament passed a law in January that sets quotas nationally and by region. This year, the quota was 6.1 million workers, with 700,000 for Moscow, according to Andrei Markov, a World Bank human development specialist.

Fines for employing an illegal worker are as much as 800,000 rubles, Mikhailov says. Yet it can take weeks for migrants to move through waiting lists at the Federal Migration Service, during which they cannot be legally employed or housed. "The law is still raw," he said.

At Khotkovo's main square, in front of a privatized department store named Beloved, Kuram and his friends struggle with rickety scaffolding as they paint the pedestal with the bust of Lenin. Like the rest of the Moscow region, Khotkovo is undergoing a building boom, with apartment blocks, a stadium and a culture center under construction.

In the nearby village of Akhtyrka, a workman rebuilds a burned-down cottage as music in the nasal tones of his native Tajik blasts from a boombox.

Most of the migrants say they long to be with their families. Kuram is heading to Uzbekistan this month, he says, to see his wife and four children. He'll come back to Russia, like others seeking jobs they can't find at home.

"If America would let me in, I'd go there," he said, laughing at his own joke.