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19 Mar, 2009 06:12

Migrant workers among worst-affected by crisis

Around six million people are unemployed in Russia, according to the country's president, Dmitry Medvedev. And it’s migrant workers from the former Soviet Republics who are among the worst-hit.

While their civil rights may have been violated before by employers not treating migrant workers fairly, their situation is being made even worse by the economic downturn.

As thousands of construction sites grind to a halt across Russia, millions of workers and their families – many of foreign origin – are affected.

Mirali, who came to Russia from Tajikistan, says he was looking for a better life. “Everybody goes to Russia! Only old men are left in Tajikistan. You can work at home – but the money you earn will only be enough for you to barely survive. Here, in just three months, you can earn enough money for a big family to live well for the rest of the year,” he says.

But that was during the boom days. Mirali lost his job after his boss went bust and construction stopped on his site. He and his family now live in a half-built country house which he was expected to finish by December. It still has no heating or water supply.

“All I need is to take my children back home. But I simply have no money to return,” he adds.

Mirali’s story is far from unique.

The government says there are 2.5 million ‘guest workers’, as it calls them, in Russia today. “The vast majority are from former Soviet Republics whose economies crashed following the collapse of the USSR. Most of them work in trade, agriculture and construction,” says Konstantin Poltoranin from the Federal Migration Service.

Gavar Dzhuraeva, head of the Independent Organisation of Migration and Law which deals with migrant rights, believes guest workers are among Russia’s most vulnerable groups.

She says their rights were being infringed before – but the global recession is making things worse. “Many of them lose their jobs. But it also happens that some continue to work but don’t get paid by their employers who are trying to make money and exploit the workers by ripping them off and not paying them.”

The authorities say they are concerned about the increasing number of unemployed workers, who are angry and hungry.

“If the situation isn't stabilised, we are worried that they'll take to the streets and will kill and rob as they have nothing else to do,” says Oleg Elnikov from the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Mirali says he would never do such a thing. But if he fails to find money to return home and fails to find another job, he says he and his children will freeze or starve to death.

At its peak, Russia's booming economy attracted millions of workers from former Soviet republics and employers were happy to use the cheap labour. But as the crisis forces many of them onto the streets, analysts warn that in time, Russia could lose an important source of labour to Western or Arab countries.