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Russia: Migrant Workers Struggle To Build Lives Amid Poverty, Abuse

Tajik workers in cramped living quarters in Russia (RFE/RL) Russian Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin is calling for measures to ease the legalization of migrants working in the country. Russia, he says, needs foreigners to ward off a looming demographic crisis and to boost its dwindling workforce. In the meantime, Russia's complex laws continue to discourage migrants from seeking legal status, making them an easy target for corrupt employers and police.

Moscow, 8 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The Russian capital has been swept by a building craze. Streets vibrate with the pounding of jackhammers as new buildings rise from every corner of the city.

Less obvious, however, is the fact that Moscow's flashy new residential complexes and office towers are being built by an army of largely illegal, poorly paid migrants from former Soviet countries.

'This Is Not A Life'

Higmat, a young man from the impoverished Central Asian republic of Tajikistan, has been working on Russian construction sites for three years. Today, he is building a steel and glass office block in the heart of Moscow with a team of fellow migrants.

Higmat sends most of his small wage -- roughly $400 a month -- to his wife and three children in Tajikistan. This means he cannot afford to rent a flat in Moscow and instead lives on the buildings sites themselves, without even the most basic amenities.

On this day, "home" for Higmat and many of his coworkers is on the second floor of the half-finished office block, in a corner closed off by rusty sheets of metal. The furniture consists of makeshift tables and beds built with spare boards. There is neither heat nor hot water, despite the approaching winter. To wash, the workers heat water on a small hotplate and step outside to rinse themselves.

Higmat is only in his 30s, but he looks worn out. He says he is tired of living in such poor conditions.

"You see how we live; conditions are really bad," he says. "This is how we live, right on building sites. It's cold at night, but we are putting up with it for the moment. To be honest, we are surviving, not living. This is not a life."

Obstacles To Legal Employment

Like the vast majority of migrant construction workers here, Higmat has no working papers.

Russian authorities recently complained that more than 1 million migrants currently work illegally in Moscow -- an estimate that many nongovernmental groups consider low -- although they readily admit that Russia is in dire need of laborers.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and other high-ranking officials regularly speak in favor of relaxing the country's migration laws to attract more foreign workers.

"It is necessary to legalize migrants," Finance Minister Kudrin declared in October, "so that they will not be afraid to pay taxes and undergo the required registration procedures."

In reality, however, little is being done to improve the status of migrants.

The process of getting official work and residency permits remains so complex and time-consuming that few migrants bother applying for them. Employers are equally reluctant to go through the trouble of obtaining permission to hire foreigners from the Federal Migration Service.

Migration and Rights, a Moscow-based group providing legal support to migrants, says that as many as 90 percent of Russian firms are not authorized to hire foreign workers.

Harsh Conditions

Their illegal status means migrants are particularly easy prey for corrupt police officers, who commonly threaten to report them unless they pay a bribe. Unscrupulous employers also take advantage of illegal migrants since they cannot seek justice if they are cheated.

Higmat says he has encountered these situations more than once.

"A few months ago, I was working at this one place," he says, "I worked one month, then one day the supervisor and the employer disappeared. We worked one month for free. This happens often."

Ravshan, a young man from Uzbekistan, works with Higmat on the same building site. He's spent eight years as a construction worker in Russia and says he's gotten used to the harsh conditions. Constant police harassment still riles him, however.

Ravshan is one of the few migrant workers who holds a valid work permit -- but he says this does not protect him from corrupt police officials.

"Police extort us," Ravshan says. "When we have no money, some of them confiscate our phones and demand that we bring them money. They are happy when they see us, because for them we are meat. Although I have registration, sometimes they tell me, 'Give me 100 [rubles, or about $3]. Give me 200. Let's go and check the computer.' They extort us."

Worse still is when the documents his employers give him turn out to be fake. Ravshan says he then has to pay a $50 bribe to avoid getting into trouble with migration authorities.

With Russia's population dwindling at an alarming rate -- according to Kudrin, Russia will lose 1 million people annually over the next 20 years -- migration seems a logical solution to the country's growing workforce shortage.

Initiatives to develop an open-door policy, however, are likely to meet resistance. Russians are becoming increasingly hostile toward migrants, particularly those hailing from Central Asia, the Caucasus, and China.

A poll conducted this year showed that 49 percent of Russians have a negative opinion of migrant workers, while 40 percent said they would like to see Russia adopt tougher immigration laws.