Undefended – Russia’s migrant workers

Published on openDemocracy, by Jane Buchanan, March 13, 2009.

The fate of millions of migrant workers in Russia is in the lurch as the country reels from the global financial crisis. Even in the best of times, during the recent years of Russia’s major economic boom, migrant workers in Russia have been subject to widespread abuses both in and outside the workplace. Now, economic crisis, coupled with a growing tide of hate-motivated violence in Russia, puts migrant workers at even greater risk …

… The government has also expressed a “love it or leave it” attitude, suggesting that if migrant workers don’t like the conditions they find in Russia, then they can just stay home.

But everyone knows that the expectation that the workers “just stay home” is not realistic, or desirable, neither for the workers themselves, who have few or no opportunities for productive employment at home, nor for Russia’s employers who rely on low-skilled employees from abroad to do the dirty, low-paying, and dangerous jobs that most Russian citizens aren’t willing to do.

Furthermore, migrant workers in Russia have a considerable impact on the economies of both Russia (experts estimate that migrant workers contribute eight to nine percent of Russian GDP) and their home countries. Remittances constitute significant portions of many regional governments’ GDP (42 percent of Tajikistan’s and 39 percent of Moldova’s in 2007, according to the World Bank).

Nor is the “love it or leave it” position viable for protecting the human rights of migrant workers in Russia. Yes, governments have the right to develop laws and policies to regulate migration, including migration for work. But Russia’s laws and policies on migration must be consistent with the country’s obligations under international human rights law to protect the fundamental rights of every individual, including migrant workers, irrespective of their migration status.

Although the full impact of the economic downturn in Russia remains far from clear, without urgent action by the Russian government, Russia’s already vulnerable migrant workers will be that much more exposed, as employers increasingly try to cut corners, intermediaries look to capitalize on workers’ desperation, and private citizens look to scapegoat migrants for their economic woes.

What’s to be done?

The Russian government must ensure rigorous labor inspections, prosecution of abusive employers, and effective regulation of intermediaries. It should also develop accessible complaint mechanisms for victims and timely and effective investigations into allegations of abuse. Further reform in migration law is also necessary to allow workers to regularize their stay more easily, making them less vulnerable to abuse and more likely to seek protection from state agencies.

The Russian government has an obligation under its own laws and international law to take these steps. It should have an interest in doing so, as these steps would create a better protected workforce. It should also be concerned about creating a better reputation for itself on labor migrants’ rights in advance of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics to avoid the embarrassment the Chinese government was subjected to over the same issue. (full text).

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