Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

CIS Laborers, a Niche and a New Law

MTPeople waiting in line at a passport and visa office in Moscow. CIS migrants are required to fill out migration cards at such offices.
Millions of Russian-speaking former citizens of the Soviet Union play a key part in the Russian economy by sending billions of rubles back to their own republics while they work in Russia.

Some of the workers build dachas in the Moscow region, while others drive trolleybuses in Moscow, sell vegetables in open markets or bring in the harvest in agricultural regions.

For the many families of these laborers, the paychecks are their key to survival.

About a quarter of the households in Armenia and Azerbaijan are dependent on transfers from family members working in Russia, said Zhanna Zaionchkovskaya, head of the Academy of Sciences' Center for Migration Studies.

Families in other republics, including Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova and Tajikistan, also count on the money, but there are no reliable figures on the amounts involved, she said.

Nationalities Minister Vladimir Zorin said last year that 2 million Armenian and 1.5 million Azeri migrants are in Russia, while the next-largest groups are from Ukraine, Moldova and Tajikistan.

But most of the migrants are not registered in Russia, leaving them open to exploitation and extortion from employers and law-enforcement agencies.

Many of the workers are ethnic Russians unable to get citizenship since the government made it more difficult last year. Many have been living and working in the country for years.

The law on foreigners, introduced in November, is intended to either legalize these workers or kick them out.

The first manifestation of the law is the migration card, which became compulsory for anyone entering Russia after February 14, 2003.

Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov, who oversees the Federal Migration Service, the body that handles migrant issues, has promised to harsh penalties to those who break the law.

A computer database on all foreigners will be in place by the end of the year.

The cards will give the authorities some ability to track CIS citizens who, apart from Belarussians and Georgians, do not need visas to enter Russia.

It is not clear how the authorities intend to control the nation's long borders, including the 6,846-kilometer border with Kazakhstan and the 1,576-kilometer Ukrainian border, which CIS citizens can cross legally.

The Interior Ministry said the law will protect jobs for Russian citizens and that foreigners are responsible for 40 percent of crime in Moscow.

Part of the clampdown is also aimed at making employers responsible for hiring workers who do not have work permits or pay income tax.

"Changes in legislation relating to the arrangement of labor for foreign citizens will result in maximum difficulty for employers wishing to take these workers," Alexander Yermolenko, a legal adviser at auditing and consulting firm FBK, said at a recent seminar.

The law on foreigners was passed July 25, but almost a year later several accompanying regulations have still not been issued, and there are signs that officials are having second thoughts.

Labor Minister Alexander Pochinok said in February that fining employers and insisting that they pay taxes on behalf of illegal workers, as envisaged in the law, could drive businesses into bankruptcy.

Natalya Shcharbakova, coordinator of the migration program at the International Labor Organization's Moscow office, said that rather than take jobs away from Russians, the CIS migrants do work that Russians don't want to do, or won't do for the money offered.

Galina Vitkovskaya, head of the migrant labor program at the International Organization for Migrants, and Zaionchkovskaya said surveys showed the average wage of migrants working in the construction industry or on production lines is about $200 per month.

"The migrants come here because there are no jobs at home. Employers are interested in illegal employees because it relieves them of a great number of obligations," Vitkovskaya said.

She doubted that the law would reduce the number of migrant laborers.

"The shadow labor market exists not because of migration, but because our economy is not yet a market economy and is unable to drag the labor market out of the shadows," she said. "Enterprises have a lot of trouble getting labor."

Alexandra Dokuchayeva, head of the diaspora section of the CIS Institute, said Moscow simply does not have the money to pay to deport all those working illegally.

"The sums sent by relatives abroad are undoubtedly important," the Moldovan Embassy said in a statement. "Often this is the only means of support for a family."

Representatives of some CIS countries have welcomed the introduction of the law as bringing order, but also express fears that it can be misused by law enforcement agencies.

"There is complete anarchy and lack of human rights for migrants, legal or illegal, in Russia," a spokesman at the Azeri Embassy said.

"All the measures taken came a little late -- in the meantime crime has developed," he said.

Vitkovskaya said that although the law is similar to those in other countries, the regulations set Russia apart from the CIS as if it were "somewhere in Central Europe," disregarding the country's links to the other countries of the former Soviet Union.

A better way to address concerns would have been to offer a mass amnesty and to create a unified labor market in the CIS, as Russian leaders have suggested in the past, she said.