Russia's Migrant-Worker Underclass

There are as many as 12 million migrant laborers in Russia. Only 2 million work in the country legally.

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Muslim migrant workers attend special prayers on the first day of Eid al-Adha in Moscow, on November 6, 2011. (Denis Sinyakov/Reuters)

MOSCOW -- Bek Takhirov knows all too well the problems that migrant workers face.

The 38-year-old ethnic Uzbek came to Russia in 2004 and worked illegally, stacking cargo in a warehouse for alcoholic beverages. Two years ago, he completed a lengthy application for Russian citizenship in order to step out of the shadows. He now works legally in St. Petersburg as a translator by day and moonlights as a security guard by night.

He also uses his experience to help newly arrived migrants from his homeland navigate Russia's increasingly difficult labor market.

"Every year it becomes harder," Takhirov says. "It used to be easy to find work quickly -- you didn't need any documents or anything. But nowadays you fill out all the documents and then they still deceive you and throw you out all the same. There is so much deceit everywhere."

That deceit includes things like nonpayment of wages, exorbitant bribes to obtain work permits, and arbitrary detentions by police.

It is due to such conditions that only 2 million of Russia's estimated 10 million to 12 million migrant laborers, most of them from the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, work in the country legally. The rest subsist in the shadow economy.

Getting Worse

Russia's policy toward migrant laborers is plagued by contradictions, analysts say. On one hand, the Kremlin would like to reap tax revenues that legalizing foreign workers would bring. The authorities also realize that migrants are needed to plug gaps in Russia's workforce due to an aging population.

But persistent anti-immigrant sentiments, poor enforcement of existing regulations, and a thriving shadow economy that counts on illegal workers have conspired to make it harder for migrants to legalize themselves.

Vasily Kravtsov, of the Moscow-based Center for 21st Century Migration, says the obstacles for migrants are only getting worse.

"Unfortunately, everything is being done to obstruct people who want to work legally, to resettle in Russia or receive citizenship -- this is particularly the case in the last two years," Kravtsov says.

Kravtsov was among the authors of a new Kremlin policy paper on migration that was unveiled in June. The paper recognized migration as a positive factor in the Russian economy, recommended that the authorities ease barriers to foreign laborers entering the workforce, and called for steps that would help integrate migrants into Russian society.

Words And Action

The Kremlin formally endorsed the concept outlined in the paper, which is intended as a policy blueprint through 2025 and lays out priorities such as promoting immigration. But, as Kravtsov notes, in practice this is not happening.

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