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Echoes of the Gulag? Migrant advocate slams suggestion by Russian prison chief that convicts be used to replace foreign workers

Echoes of the Gulag? Migrant advocate slams suggestion by Russian prison chief that convicts be used to replace foreign workers
The head of Russia’s Federation of Migrants has slammed suggestions by the country’s Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) that prisoners could be used to replace foreign workers, noting that many immigrants are highly skilled.

Vadim Kozhenov’s comments came after prison head Alexander Kalashnikov suggested that convicts should be put to work to help fix the country’s acute shortage of labor migrants due to the Covid-19 crisis. The Federation of Migrants is an advocacy group for foreigners living in Russia.

“Who will educate [the prisoners]?” Kozhenov asked online publication Podyom. “Migrants are sufficiently qualified. [But] the FSIN would have to somehow organize all the prisoners and try to understand who is a bricklayer, who is a plasterer, and who is a carpenter.”

Earlier in the day, speaking to the press, Kalashnikov suggested convicts could be used in the construction sector, which is suffering from a serious lack of manpower caused by closed borders and reduced international travel. In particular, people from Central Asia, who were previously a valuable source of cheap labor for Russian businesses, are stuck in their home countries.

In April, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov revealed that Russia desperately needed migrants for the implementation of what he referred to as “ambitious plans." In December last year, it was reported that Russia has lost around five million foreign residents since the start of the Covid-19 crisis. The number of migrants has now dropped to approximately 6.3 million.

According to Kalashnikov, the best way to solve the problem is to put prisoners to work. He also suggested having them build new housing facilities to live in, located near the construction site they’d be working on.

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“It won’t be a gulag,” the FSIN head said, explaining that the housing would be brand new and offer decent conditions. The working prisoners would also be provided with a wage.

“It is better for the prisoners to build dormitories to provide jobs,” he explained. “They will stay there. They will work there too. And we will solve the labor problem.”

The Gulag was a system of camps that housed prisoners during the Soviet era. These penal colonies became a symbol of political repression, especially during Joseph Stalin’s reign as leader. Millions of people who were sent to the camps died.

The idea of using prison labor has been floated in Russia many times. Earlier this year, there were suggestions to use prison labor on the Baikal–Amur Mainline and the Trans-Siberian Railway, two vitally important stretches of train track.

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