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Thursday, September 07, 2006

Russian Untouchables

The Chicago Tribune reports on the slavery-like horrors of the Russian labor market:

SOFRINO, Russia - A glimpse of Russia's immigration conundrum can be found behind the pallets of brick, lumber, sheet metal and iron at a sprawling construction-materials yard in this Moscow suburb, where ironworker Abdumalik Kholikov eats and sleeps in a trailer smaller than a prison cell.

The mattresses he and a fellow Tajik laborer sleep on take up most of the space. They store their clothes in plastic bags hung on the walls. A hot plate caked in grease and resting on bricks substitutes as a stove. There's no toilet and no shower; they pour plastic bottles of water over each other to wash.

"I've lived like this for four years," said Kholikov, who sends much of his $370 monthly pay home to Tajikistan to support his wife and five children. "I doubt things will change anytime soon."

Kholikov and legions of immigrants like him from Central Asia's dirt-poor economies are much of the brawn behind Moscow's frenzied building boom - the construction workers, welders, loaders and bricklayers changing the cityscape with every new high rise.

They're also Russia's untouchables, stymied by a bureaucracy that makes attaining legal status virtually impossible, and are routinely exploited by corrupt police and unscrupulous employers.

Estimates of the number of illegal migrant workers in Russia range from 5 million to 14 million. Long before they emigrate, they know the Catch-22 they'll face.

As citizens of former Soviet republics, they don't need visas. But within three days of their arrival in Moscow they must notify authorities of their new residence. Most Russian apartment owners refuse to rent to Tajiks and other Central Asian migrants. So without an apartment, they become instant lawbreakers.

That makes them easy prey in a society where a shadow economy flourishes and corruption is rife.

Construction companies routinely renege on paying wages to Central Asian migrant laborers. The housing they provide workers at job sites amounts to little more than ramshackle one-room cabins or abandoned railway cars. As many as a dozen laborers can be crammed into the cars for several months, often through the Russian capital's unforgiving winters.

In many instances, groups of workers are traded from one construction firm to another like chattel, said Gavkhar Dzhurayeva, head of the Migration and Law Center, a Moscow-based advocacy group for migrant workers.

"The system doesn't allow these workers to become legalized, because there are too many people in government and at these companies with a stake in what's going on," Dzhurayeva said. "The whole system is predicated on these workers being treated as slaves."

Russia needs workers like Kholikov. The country's economy is in the midst of an epic comeback, but a relentless plunge in population has leaders worried about having a labor force large enough to sustain that comeback. Russia's population, now 142.4 million, is dropping at a rate of about 600,000 people each year.

So far, the government has waded gingerly into the problem.

Last year, it embarked on a pilot project to grant amnesty to 7,000 illegal migrant workers in 10 Russian provinces. There was talk of expanding the program to millions of other migrant workers, but no action has been taken. Immigration remains a sensitive subject in Russia, where nationalist-minded segments of the population look upon Central Asians and people from the Caucasus region with deep resentment.

Elena Tiurukanova, a researcher at Moscow's Institute for Socioeconomic Population Studies, cited recent polls suggesting that, while more than half of Russians acknowledge using services provided by immigrants, "60 percent are intolerant of immigrants - they don't want them here."

Employers who rely on illegal migrants have a very different reason for resisting meaningful change in Russian migration laws. By using illegal workers, employers can avoid paying taxes, hold back wages whenever they want and impose 12- or even 14-hour workdays. If a worker complains, they simply turn him over to the police.

Workers rarely complain, though. As bad as they have it in Russia, their lot is worse back home. In Tajikistan, wages are as low as $4 a month and average about $30 monthly. Their desperation is easily witnessed on any given day along Yaroslavsky Highway in the Moscow suburb of Mytishchi.

Each morning, dozens of illegal Tajik immigrants swarm around every car that pulls up. The man behind the wheel offers a handful of jobs, waves a few Tajiks into the car and drives away. Those left behind sit on their haunches or on guardrails and wait for the next car.

Zafar Bachayev, 23, has been a regular along Yaroslavsky Highway for six years. At his last job at a suburban apartment building construction site, his employer promised him $600 and paid him $150. "We slept in a railroad car, 12 people in the car," said Bachayev, who is saving up to finish his studies at a Tajikistan university. "We worked 14 hours a day."

Fellow Tajik Said Vatoyev came to Mytishchi when he was 14 and has bounced between construction sites and odd jobs ever since. "They give us cabins without beds or mattresses and allow us to wash once a week," said Vatoyev, now 18. "We're treated like dogs at these work sites."

The Federal Migration Service expects the situation to improve in January, when the only document that migrant workers will need is a work permit, said Natalya Vlasova, deputy chief of the agency's foreign labor department. Advocates for illegal migrant workers say such steps don't go far enough.

The agency needs to beef up the ranks of its inspectors to ferret out exploitation of migrant workers at job sites, Dzhurayeva said. And Russian authorities need to clamp down on the corruption that makes the use of illegal migrant workers so lucrative for employers and local police.

"For 15 years, a lack of law enforcement has given rise to this entrenched network between employers, authorities and migrant workers," Dzhurayeva said. "Breaking up that network won't be easy."

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