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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cheated, Injured and Then Deported

GRIPKI, Moscow Region -- This is the end of the road for some of Moscow's foreign workers, the Severny Detention Center, a four-story jail in a suburb of scruffy dachas and industrial plants.

Behind barred windows and locked behind 7.5-centimeter-thick doors languish about 450 inmates awaiting deportation. Many are economic refugees from Central Asia or Eastern Europe, lured by labor brokers with promises of wages 10 times what the workers could earn at home.

But they arrive at one of Moscow's major construction sites only to become virtual prisoners -- stripped of their passports, on the job from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days per week, and locked up at night in dormitories or battered trailers on the site.

Some of the immigrant workers are paid only part of their promised wages; some do not get paid at all.

"They are like slaves," said Svetlana Gannushkina, head of the Civic Assistance Committee in Moscow, an organization workers sometimes turn to when they are in trouble. "In fact, they are slaves. They have no rights."

Foreign workers are drawn here by the promise of jobs because Moscow, flush with oil money, is in the midst of a building boom unprecedented in its history.

Construction cranes punctuate the skyline, new malls seem to sprout every few months and clusters of gleaming towers are rising on the bulldozed sites of old factories. By 2015, the Moscow city government plans to build 200 high-rise buildings on 60 sites around the city -- projects certain to attract still more foreign workers.

Workers who complain about safety issues or lack of payment risk being arrested by police who are sometimes paid by construction companies. Workers who complain also risk being handed over to the courts, where they may be expelled from the country.

Those waiting to be sent home wind up at one of eight detention sites, including Severny Center, about an hour's drive north of Moscow.

Sukhrov Shamirzayev, a 19-year-old from Uzbekistan, arrived in Russia early last year to work as a carpenter at an eight-story apartment building being erected southeast of the city center.

After hauling materials around the site for a month, he was picked up one morning by police as he and 10 co-workers waited for the bus to work. The arrest saved his employer the cost of his wages. "They promised me $300 to $350 per month," he said. "But they have not paid me yet."

At the time he was interviewed, the teenager had spent more than eight months behind bars. His family in Uzbekistan knew nothing of what had happened to him. "I do not want to tell them," he said. "I do not want them to worry. I just do not know how long I will be here."

His cell, which he shared with six others, had a single bare bulb hanging from the ceiling and a toilet in one corner screened by a chest-high masonry wall. The metal-frame beds were neatly made with blue-striped pink blankets. A picture of Britney Spears hung above the cell door.

Once a week, inmates are let out of the cellblocks for an hour of exercise. They get one shower a week. There are no televisions or radios: No one here can afford them. The boredom drives some to distraction. Last year, about a dozen frustrated inmates took a guard hostage and escaped.

Under the law, detainees must be set free after a year. But once released, they risk immediate re-arrest if police stop them on the street for a document check.

Last year about 96,000 foreign workers were registered in Moscow -- about one-tenth the number working illegally, according to Nikolai Azarov, deputy chief of inspection for the Federal Migration Service.

Azarov's 60 inspectors are supposed to enforce labor laws at the city's thousands of construction sites. But if an immigrant laborer is hired illegally, "it is easy for an employer to do whatever he wants with a person, to throw him out like a dog," he said.

Sergei Gerasimov, director of the Severny center, said the exploitation of workers already here has not discouraged new ones from arriving every day. "We can speak of a wave that swept over Moscow," he said.

Last year the migration service deported 4,886 illegal immigrants, Gerasimov said -- "but that is just a drop in the sea."

Ali Shir Khakberdiyev, 19, of Tajikistan earned $450 a month as a painter for a contractor who demanded his passport for "safekeeping," he said. The young worker slept in a bunk bed in a small wooden trailer that he shared with nine other men, the trailer parked inside a fenced, locked construction site. In September, he sneaked out to buy cigarettes at a nearby store.

That's when a policeman arrested him. Khakberdiyev has been ordered expelled from Russia and is banned from returning for five years.

At Severny, he reads Russian newspapers, plays cards or backgammon, or does push-ups on the floor. "It's better than at the construction site," he said.

Gerasimov, the director, said many inmates are in no hurry to leave. "Here, there's medical help," he said. "They eat three times a day. Out there, they live in wagons 6 meters long, some of them stuffed with 20 bunk beds. And they are fed nothing but packages of instant soup."

Galina Dmitriyeva, a union organizer in her early 20s, has worked undercover at three different construction sites, living in dormitories where 16 people sleep in a single room with two toilets for every 100 workers.

Guards at construction sites and dormitories, she said, treat workers like inmates, calling them "black pigs." Workers are fined for wasting time or construction materials.

When deadlines loom, construction foremen work their teams around the clock -- but never pay overtime. One brigade of masons building luxury apartments on the site of the old MosFilm Studios, she said, was required to work for three days and nights straight with only a few two-hour breaks for sleep.

Moscow newspapers and television stations seldom cover construction site accidents, but the workers and their advocates say deadly mishaps occur frequently. After a laborer fell to his death from a building at the MosFilm Studios site, Dmitriyeva said, a foreman told others to ignore the crumpled body and keep working.

Boris, who came to Moscow five years ago from Tajikistan with a medical degree, has worked on and off in the construction industry. The 35-year-old, who spoke on condition that his last name not be used for fear of retribution by construction company owners, carries a medical kit with him and works unofficially as an emergency medical technician for foreign workers injured at work sites. He has seen a half-dozen men die from accidents on construction projects, many of them as the result of fires or bad falls, he said.

In February, a 24-year-old Tajik man fell off a staircase under construction, landing on his head. "He did not have a helmet, and there were no ropes to hold him back," Boris said. His bosses were late in summoning an ambulance, and the young worker died at the hospital.

A day later, no one on the site mentioned the incident.

"That young boy?" Boris said. "It was as though he never existed."