Ruble ripple: New Russian laws make life difficult for migrant workers

In face of economic crisis, laborers face tougher legal restrictions, higher permit fees and language tests

Migrant workers line up at a security checkpoint to get to Moscow’s Red Square in 2013. Because of a new law and higher fees, migrant workers find it far more difficult to earn a living in Russia.
Ivan Sekretarev / AP

Abror Safdarkulov moved to Moscow in 2005, after graduating from a university in his native Tajikistan. Each month he makes some 25,000 rubles refurbishing apartments and working odd shifts at his friend’s kebab stand.

On a good day, his wife, a cleaner, brings home 1,500 rubles, making the couple just about able to cover the 18,000 ruble monthly rent for their room and any additional living costs. (The exchange rate is just over 61 rubles per U.S. dollar.)

After a decade living and working in Russia’s capital, Safdarkulov, 37, is faced with a tough choice. His work permit expires March 1, and he is unable to apply for a new one until he receives the international passport that he applied for more than a week ago. Because of laws that took effect Jan. 1 for workers from countries lacking a visa regime with Russia, including Tajikistan, the national identity card that he initially used to enter Russia now gives him neither the right to remain nor the right to leave. And with a fourfold increase in the monthly fees he must pay to work legally, his future is unclear.

“We used to live better before,” he says, referring to the wave of Central Asian migrants who arrived in Russia after the communist collapse almost 25 years ago. “Now they’re making things unbearable for us. People are being forced to leave.”


A migrant worker from Tajikistan with his labor license.
Artyom Korotayev / TASS / Zuma

The rapid slide in the value of Russia’s currency since December has driven up inflation, placing immense pressure on the millions of migrant workers hard pressed to make ends meet on already meager salaries. Russia’s migration service estimates that 70 percent fewer migrants arrived in the country this January compared with last, a consequence of the stringent new regulations as much as the economic crisis. Though solid official figures are difficult to obtain or confirm, local Russian media reports have suggested a mass migrant exodus from Russia. The RBC newspaper has reported that more than 178,000 Tajik nationals and nearly 365,000 Uzbeks left Russia in the last six months of 2014. The news comes amid a rise in ethnic tensions in Russia, with minority groups targeted by nationalists and sometimes blamed for economic woes.

Certainly it is no longer easy to pick up a job. New arrivals wanting to work legally in Moscow — as well as those already in the capital — are met with a daunting and costly administrative procedure. Work permits now cost 22,000 rubles and carry a 4,000 ruble monthly fee. Before obtaining one, each applicant must purchase health insurance, supply proof of medical tests for HIV, tuberculosis, drug addiction and skin disease and pass a test on Russian language, history and law. All of which must be done within a month of arrival.

First on the list for most the 3 million or so legally employed migrants in Russia, however, is a trip to their country’s consular division to apply for international passports. Changes to Russia’s migration policy introduced last June made it mandatory for citizens of most nations in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) — a majority of the former Soviet republics — to enter the country with an international passport, replacing the internal document they previously used to cross the border. An exemption has been made for members of the new Eurasian Economic Union, comprising Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia and, soon, Kyrgyzstan.

‘We used to live better before. Now they’re making things unbearable for us. People are being forced to leave.’

Abror Safdarkulov

Tajik laborer in Moscow

On a frosty Thursday afternoon outside the Tajik embassy's consular building in western Moscow, there was a commotion. Since the early hours, hundreds of migrant workers had been waiting in line to legalize their presence in Russia. A rudimentary metal fence separated those waiting from the passing traffic, taking pressure off the three uniformed guards who kept watchful eyes on the restless crowd. On the opposite side of the street, another group waited for their friends and relatives in line.

Mirzo Kadardinov, a 30-year-old who works as a security guard in southern Moscow, was pacing impatiently up and down the pavement as he waited for his brother Abdulo Kadardinov to emerge. Abdulo Kadardinov joined the line at 5 a.m., and two hours ago, Mirzo Kadardinov received a call telling him his brother had made it inside. The two were preparing to travel to Ukraine and then back to Russia to validate their new passports before submitting applications for work permits.

“We arrived only eight months ago. We’ll stay for another year or so to work and earn money before heading home. The economic crisis may continue, but it still pays to make the move,” he said.

Inside the building, two stalls were selling train and plane tickets to Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, and other major cities in Tajikistan. Prices differed little, with both rail and air connections starting at 15,000 rubles. A narrow, cramped corridor led to two small windows in the opposite wall, outside each of which separate lines had formed. Above one of them hung a sign saying “certificate of return,” referring to a temporary document costing 200 rubles that allows nationals to return home.

The line for the second window, which took applications for international passports, was much longer. Despite the $100 fee — which must be paid in U.S. dollars — plus an 800 ruble commission — it seemed most of those who had braved the February cold were determined to remain in Moscow and confront the bureaucratic obstacles placed in their way.


Yet not all experts agree on how to interpret the impact of the crisis. Nikolai Kurdyumov, who heads the committee on economic migration at business lobby group OPORA Rossii, dismissed the current decline as a temporary phenomenon.

“The statistics do not reflect reality. Migrants traditionally leave Russia in December and come back in February or March. Fewer might have returned this year because of the new regulations, but they’ll come back. They don’t have an alternative, after all,” he says.

His optimism is shared by many in the government. While Russia may remain an attractive destination for Central Asian migrants — Tajikistan derives more than half its GDP from remittances, more than 90 percent of which come from its former Soviet patron — the chaos created by the new regulations suggest major flaws in the migration service’s overhaul.

‘Migrants traditionally leave Russia in December and come back in February or March. Fewer might have returned this year because of the new regulations, but they’ll come back. They don’t have an alternative.’

Nikolai Kurdyumov

OPORA Rossii, a business lobby group

On Jan. 12, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin opened a new multipurpose facility in the village of Sakharovo, 40 miles outside the capital. It’s now the only place issuing work permits to CIS migrants, after the closure of another such center in northern Moscow. Earlier this month, after complaints from locals, he announced a decision to shut the language testing facility in Moscow’s Tsaritsyno district. After it closes in March, all testing will be transferred to Sakharovo.

The move would certainly ease pressure on the overloaded bureaucratic machine, but behind the hasty and uncoordinated changes lies a more worrying shift in public opinion. A 2013 poll by the independent Levada Center revealed that 84 percent of Russians surveyed backed a strict visa policy for workers from Central Asia and Transcaucasia, and 65 percent viewed the number of migrants in their region as excessive. The figures coincide with a rise in interethnic tensions and growing support for nationalist rhetoric. Police campaigns cracking down on illegal immigration are regularly presented on Russia’s news channels.

Those migrants lucky enough to find work in Russia are also routinely cheated out of pay, according to Karomat Sharipov, who heads the Tajik Labor Migrants association and has been working with Russia’s migrant community for over 20 years.


Other migrant workers in Moscow.
Ivan Sekretarev / AP

“Migrant workers are deceived on a regular basis. They’re hired for construction work and promised a good wage and then left to fend for themselves once their employers disappear,” Sharipov said.

Kurdyumov, however, is convinced that the new system will work to reduce the number of such cases. “Of course there have been cases of workers going unpaid, and there will be others in the future. But with each migrant paying 4,000 rubles a month into the city budget, Moscow has a stake in controlling the situation. I think the authorities will be far better at monitoring it in the future,” he says.

For the moment, migrants like Safdarkulov are left in a state of limbo. Unable to renew their work permits by the official deadline and liable to be caught by Moscow’s increasingly strict migration patrol, they’re left relying on a system that they feel has been orchestrated to make them leave.

Safdarkulov plans to return to Tajikistan in the summer, and he doesn’t know if he’ll return to Russia. His brother at home is making more money than he is in Moscow, he says, so he may try his luck there. Until then, he’s left waiting for a phone call from the passport office.

“The Russian government has introduced those laws deliberately. They don’t like migrants, and they’re pressuring us to leave. But you have to understand them. They’re tired of us,” he says.

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