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Russia Reduces Quotas On Foreign Workers

Many say the change will only drive migrants underground.
Sharifbek Saddridin once taught geography in his native Tajikistan. But rampant poverty and unemployment drove him to migrate to Moscow several years ago.

Today, Saddridin toils at construction sites in the Russian capital alongside other migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus. The work is hard and the pay is paltry -- some $600 a month, most of which he sends back home to his family.

Now, he faces losing even that precarious job after Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin this week signed a decree aimed at cutting quotas for foreign workers by half.

"It's going to be very difficult, because there is no work at home," Saddridin says. "I don't know what's going to happen after January, how it's all going to end, how people will continue living."

After a decade of booming growth, Russia has been hit hard by the global financial crisis. Companies have started laying off employees, and scores of construction projects have been frozen due to lack of funding.

Disgruntled Russians are pinning much of the blame for the country's economic woes on the more than 10 million immigrants who, like Saddridin, have flocked to Russia for work.

The past few weeks have seen a string of antimigration protests across the country.

Activists from the Young Guard, the youth wing of Russia's ruling party, this week held a street rally calling for every other migrant worker to be expelled from the country. Protesters held banners saying, "We will defend Russians" and "Our country, our work."

The group has also offered to patrol construction sites in search of illegal foreign workers.

Quotas Seen As Counterproductive

People from Central Asia don't need visas to enter Russia. But once in the country, many are unable to find legal employment, mainly because employers are reluctant to pay taxes and seek the required permits.

Saddridin says the government's decision to reduce quotas for foreigners has stirred up feelings of injustice among Moscow's migrant community, since most Russians would refuse to perform the work migrants traditionally do.

"Russians are not ready to work for that money and in these conditions," says Svetlana Gannushkina, a rights campaigner who specializes in migration issues. "Migrants who come here are unqualified, they work for a pittance. This is a very profitable working force, and hiring it illegally is even more profitable."

Migration experts say the planned quota reductions will do little to ease Russia's deepening economic crisis. On the contrary, the measure is likely to push migrant workers further into illegality.

"Most companies will continue to hire migrants like in the past, regardless of quotas," says Boghshohi Lashkarbek, the head of the Tajik Cultural Center in Moscow.

"These quotas are not profitable for employers, who don't want to pay taxes; this decision will lead to a rise in the number of illegal migrants in Moscow," he adds. "Tajiks will suffer even more than before. They will be fined at every opportunity, and employers will continue to avoid responsibility."

The quota cuts are also fanning the flames of already growing xenophobia by focusing public discontent over the economic crisis on migrants.

"The press is currently waging a real antimigrants campaign, claiming that people are being laid off en masse and that, instead of returning to their country, migrants go out in groups to kill defenseless Russians," says Galina Kozhevnikova, an expert at Sova, an organization that monitors racial attacks in Russia.

"The fact that this is actively supported by the State Duma only intensifies these feelings of fear," she adds. "All this leads to a rise in violence."

According to Sova, 84 people have been killed in racially motivated attacks in Russia and more than 360 others wounded so far this year.

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