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Russia: System Presents Uphill Climb For Labor Migrants

  • Claire Bigg --> Yelena Tyuryukanova says at least one in 10 illegal immigrants is "literally enslaved by their employer" (RFE/RL) Yelena Tyuryukanova, a senior researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Socioeconomic Problems, spoke recently with RFE/RL about the pitfalls for foreign workers in Russia. She pointed to a rampant disregard for the law, the "enslavement" of Russian employers, and "crowding out" by the shadow economy, among other things. The following is an edited transcript.

RFE/RL: What are the legal requirements for Russian employers who want to hire foreign workers, and what do foreigners who want to work in Russia have to do?

Yelena Tyuryukanova: The employer must first apply for an authorization to hire a foreign worker and, at the same time, the employer receives a permit for his worker. Hence, the worker himself actually doesn't do anything; everything is done by the employer. This permit can be used only by this specific employer, only for the specific job in question, and only for the period of time prescribed by the contract. The worker thus does not have the right to transfer from one employer to another, to leave for another city or federal district, or anything else. With this permit, he is bound to his employer.

RFE/RL: Is it difficult for a Russian firm to obtain such a permit?

Tyuryukanova: In theory, it is done like this: The firm goes to the local officials responsible for immigration with a bulky set of documents; these officials are part of the Interior Ministry. From the Interior Ministry, these documents are passed on to the Employment Agency, [known as] "Rostrud," which certifies that there are no Russians seeking the job that is requested for the foreigner. When the certification is obtained, these documents are returned to the immigration officials, who then issue the permit. However, this takes a very long time; and for workers who come here for only three months, it is an unrealistic time frame. By law, this process should take no more than a month. In reality, it is much longer.

RFE/RL: Are the demands often met [for] the processes that Russian firms have to go through in order to legally hire these people? Are they usually successful?

Tyuryukanova: Statistically, 460,000 of these permits were issued in 2004. As for the number of number of illegal immigrants who work without these permits, it is around 5 million. We actually don't call them "illegal immigrants" anymore, because they are citizens of CIS countries, so they are just illegal workers. This figure actually fluctuates, since there are periods when more work is available. The maximum figure is usually around 5 million, and the minimum is about 3 million. Of course, these figures are not precise, but assuming that there are indeed 5 million illegal workers, this would mean that nine-tenths of the immigrants do not follow the legal procedures.

RFE/RL: What do you think should be done in terms of immigration policy in order to remedy the situation?

Tyuryukanova: There are several things. First of all, the process of obtaining permits must be made easier. Second of all, the country is experiencing a demographic crisis; there is a shortage of jobs; the population is aging, so there will be a drop in the labor force in the next 10 years. This is why I think we should not only make the process of obtaining permits easier, but also start to make the permits more general, setting quotas for foreign labor in branches of the economy where there is an inherent lack of local cadres. This is also dependent on the geographical location. For example, in Moscow there is not enough local labor in infrastructure works. In Siberia, in the Far East, there are other branches in need of support. In other words, the workers wouldn't apply for specific jobs but simply declare that they are looking for work, after which they would be notified where they can go and work. Third, the federal districts are all very diverse and have their own local needs. We should pass legislature that would allow them more freedom in determining immigration quotas.

RFE/RL: What measures are currently being taken by the Russian government?

Tyuryukanova: The government is actually doing what I mentioned above. The solutions to this problem are rather apparent. It is obvious that there is not a large and competent enough labor force to achieve the current economic goals, like doubling the GDP. The process of obtaining permits for employers is slowly becoming simpler. Amendments are being made to legislature concerning the status of foreign citizens seeking work, making work permits easier to obtain.

The problem is that the pace at which these changes are taking place is too slow. The government’s approach to the problem is too general. It would be much more efficient to let the federal districts handle it themselves. As it is right now, the districts are paralyzed by the legislature.

RFE/RL: One last question. In your opinion, what are the implications of illegal labor for Russia as well as for the CIS countries where that labor is coming from?

Tyuryukanova: I just wanted to add some things about what should be done. The illegal immigrant situation has sprouted many shady enterprises, including illegal job marketers, various sketchy middlemen, and so on. This should gradually be replaced by official structures. That is, the government must make available and accessible those services, which are otherwise offered illegally. As it stands now, 10-20 percent of illegal laborers are literally enslaved by their employers. They cannot leave their employers; they are physically and psychologically abused; 23 percent of women experience sexual harassment; their ability to move around is limited by their employers; 20 percent of immigrants do not have passports, because they are held by their employers -- and thus controlled by criminal means.

I'm not even talking about the violation of basic workers' rights, such as limited working hours, fixed pay. For example, once builders complete a construction job, they are sometimes not paid, because the owner of the project claims to be unhappy with their work, or they are not paid enough. These are the implications for the workers themselves. As for Russian businesses, the shadow economy is consuming much of the labor that would otherwise be available to legal enterprises. Therefore, it is unfair competition for the Russian economy. It is, essentially, the "dumping" of labor -- the practice of selling labor below its market price. It also assists the spread of misconduct toward workers, which the illegal workers obviously accept, but only because they have no other choice: they come from poor countries and have to somehow provide for their families.
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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to​