St. Pete Unemployed Seek Jobs Abroad

ST. PETERSBURG -- Once it was popular among post-Soviet Russians with wanderlust but little money to go to Greece or Turkey to work on fruit farms. Then Russians seeking profitable work and travel became chelnoki, or shuttle traders, who purchased goods abroad and brought them back for sale.

Now, however, there is a new way for less-affluent Russians to see the world and make a ruble: They can get short-term factory jobs in Italy, the Czech Republic and other countries with contracts brokered by the St. Petersburg Youth Job Center or by local companies, such as Personnel Service.

In one such deal, 50 workers from St. Petersburg recently left for the city of Sabatin in the Czech Republic, where they will assemble Velamos bicycles for a wage of $1 an hour.

Their eight-month contract -- supported by the job center and Personnel Service -- stipulates that they will work 10 hours a day, five days a week.

Velamos has promised to pay for round-trip plane tickets from St. Petersburg to the Czech Republic, and to provide housing and two free meals a day.

"If I work hard I can earn $300 a month," said Dima, 28, one of the St. Petersburgers who signed up for the Velamos trip.

Given the average St. Petersburg factory worker's monthly salary of 836,300 rubles ($149), Dima pronounced himself satisfied with all the conditions of the contract with the Czech bicycle manufacturer.

"I'm just disappointed that we have only one short break each day. We get just 20 minutes to eat, and have no time to smoke and relax like we are used to in Russia," he added.

Workers live in motels with two to four people in a room, according to Olga Vasilyeva, a representative of the job center, in a telephone interview from Sabatin. Vasilyeva said workers also have access to communal rooms with televisions and a kitchen.

"The workers were each given new uniforms and even fashionable leather boots to keep," she added.

Such placements abroad are not rare, and could grow more common.

Grigory Barabanov, deputy chairman of the Federal Migration Service, said that about 11,000 Russians were sent to work abroad last year on contracts brokered by more than 100 job placement companies throughout the country.

In the Czech Republic, the level of unemployment is about 3 percent and the average monthly industrial wage is only about $350, according to Klimen Grushka, the vice consul of the Czech consulate in St. Petersburg.

"It's no surprise that our enterprises need qualified workers," Grushka said.

Given St. Petersburg's lower industrial wages -- less than half of the Czech Republic's -- and 450,000 unemployed, there is real pressure to seek work abroad, if it is available.

"As for me, I wouldn't go to work anywhere for just $1 an hour," said Yevgeny Gubanikhin, the director at Personnel Services. "But there are lots of people in St. Petersburg who would be quite satisfied with that money."

Gubanikhin said his company is preparing to recruit 30 employees for an Italian company, among others.

According to Gubanikhin, St. Petersburg -- with its mass of highly educated and motivated unemployed people -- is a gold mine for the employment market.

However, not everyone likes the idea. Leonid Karlukov, deputy director of St. Petersburg's massive Izhorsky works, said he doesn't understand why Russians want to go abroad when his factory has jobs to spare.

"I've been to the Czech Republic, and in the past, employees from Vietnam were recruited for plants like Velamos. It is a monotonous job controlling the machinery and it doesn't demand any qualifications," Karlukov said.

Nor was the head of St. Petersburg's local trade union pleased to hear about deals like the Velamos contract.

"It's just disgraceful that they work under those conditions. It is a very uncivilized way to recruit. Their salary is significantly lower than in civilized countries," said Valery Raikevich, a representative of the trade union of St. Petersburg and the Leningrad Oblast. "We will certainly look into this."

Oleg, 32, another worker on the Velamos contract, has an easy answer to those who ask why he would want to run a press at the Velamos factory for 10 hours a day: He and his wife want the chance to travel.

Previously, Oleg worked at a Karelian steel processing plant. He said conditions there were comparatively worse.

"[With the Velamos contract] we get a chance to work and relax too," he said.

They also get a new skill: a second language.

"We wave our hands around and make ourselves understood," said Oleg, in a telephone interview from Sabatin. "I think eight months will be enough to learn to speak fluently."