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Russian Farmers Suffering As COVID-19 Pandemic Keeps Central Asian Workers At Home

Migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan harvest potatoes in a private field in Russia's Krasnoyarsk region.
Migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan harvest potatoes in a private field in Russia's Krasnoyarsk region.

Russian farmers who are highly dependent on Central Asian workers to harvest their crops are in a bind as the coronavirus pandemic lockdown has left hundreds of thousands of migrants unable to get into Russia.

The shortage of the cheap source of labor provided by the foreign workers -- hundreds of thousands are needed for the seasonal work -- has created a crisis for segments of Russia's agricultural sector and threatens its food chains.

The dire situation has prompted some Russian experts to call on Moscow to allow tens of thousands of migrant workers to enter Russia despite the lockdown in order to save the harvests.

Russian agricultural officials started sounding the alarm as early as April, with the Berry Producers Union urging the Agriculture Ministry to take measures to help them.

The union warned that without migrant workers, Russian strawberry farmers would not be able to harvest more than 10 to 20 percent of the crop.

Similar concerns about the severe shortage of workforce were raised by regional officials in the Astrakhan and Volgograd regions, among others.

Migrant workers are also commonly employed in the construction sector.
Migrant workers are also commonly employed in the construction sector.

Help Wanted, Russians Need Not Apply

In a recent report, experts from the Russian Academy of National Economy and Public Administration suggested that the government should consider bringing "seasonal agriculture migrants by air transport" to Russia.

The experts recommended that the workers be put under a 14-day quarantine after they arrive to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

They estimated that there is currently a need for some 500,000 additional workers in Russia's agriculture sector.

Russia closed its borders on March 18 due to the pandemic, which has hit the country hard and infected more than 432,000 people as of June 3. More than 8,000 new coronavirus cases are currently being registered in Russia every day.

To fill the gap in the labor market, some regional officials are turning to an alternative workforce, such as students and prisoners.

But such options don't work for everyone.

Pavel Grudinin, the director of the Lenin Sovkhoz, a company in the Moscow region, told RFE/RL's Russian Service that his agricultural enterprise needed more dedicated workers -- which the migrant workers provide.

Pavel Grudinin
Pavel Grudinin

"It's quite specific work and not everyone can harvest the crop," he said. "We wrote letters to all of the agricultural universities requesting them to send us students to work during the harvest season.

"An agricultural migrant worker picks an average of 200 kilograms of strawberries per day, but the average Muscovite who comes to work on our farms collects about 40 kilograms a day," he added. "Do you understand the difference?"

Grudinin said the Russian government should follow the example of some Western countries to open a special "corridor" for foreign farm workers to come to Russia during the harvest season.

Win-Win For Everyone

But it’s not just the Russian farmers taking a hit due to the lockdown.

The coronavirus pandemic has left millions of people in Central Asia dependent on remittances from family members working in Russia facing extreme financial hardship and an uncertain future.

In the northern Tajik province of Sughd, part-time farm worker Bahriddin Bahriddinov said he was "ready to do any job in Russia to survive," if only the borders would reopen.

"In recent years, I'd been working for about three to five months a year on farms in Russia's Volgograd region, collecting onions and other vegetables," he said. "For the rest of the year, I work as a teacher in Tajikistan, but the money I brought from Russia was the main part of our family budget."

Someone has to pick the strawberries.
Someone has to pick the strawberries.

Unable to go to Russia, Bahriddinov said he was looking for other income options at home, as his monthly salary of about $70 doesn't cover the needs of his family of five.

But in an impoverished country, where unemployment was rife even before the pandemic, Bahriddinov is competing against "an army" of job seekers. "Repairing somebody's barn, painting someone's house, or picking apricots at a farming enterprise -- these are the kinds of jobs we're doing now," he said.

The cost of labor has always been low in Tajikistan, but "it has become even cheaper now, with so many people desperate for work," Bahriddinov said.

"If Russia takes some seasonal migrants in, it would save both us, the migrants, and the Russian farmers, who need cheap labor," he said.

There are some experts in Moscow who say Russia should try to end its dependence on the massive foreign workforce and instead rely on its own resources.

"Russia must be able to provide for itself with its own resources, and the country is capable of doing so," said Aleksandr Shcherbakov of the Academy of National Economy and Public Administration. "Besides, we have an unemployment problem, which is only getting worse [with the pandemic]."

"We must rely on our own strengths, our own personnel, and our own workers," said Shcherbakov, who wasn't part of the institute's recent study on the worker shortage in Russia's farming sector.

There Is No Competition

Russia is a host for millions of migrant workers from former Soviet states -- mainly Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- as well as from other countries, such as China, North Korea, and Vietnam.

Migrants are mainly engaged in physically demanding and relatively low-paid jobs, such as work at construction sites, on farms, and in factories.

"The migrants primarily work in the sectors where the Russians don't want to work," said Yelena Varshavskaya of Moscow's National Research University Higher School of Economics. "These are jobs that don't require high qualifications and, accordingly, don't pay well.... These are jobs that the Russians have always ignored, there has never been competition from the Russians [for them]."

Back in Tajikistan's Sughd Province, Bahriddinov said migrant workers -- especially the seasonal vegetable pickers -- don't present any competition or risk to Russians looking for work.

“We pay for the [work permit], pay our dues, and do our work and go back home,” he said.

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