With the onset of spring fast approaching, Russia is preparing for a new, incoming wave of labor migrants. Government officials in Moscow, including the head of the Federal Migration Service, acknowledge that the Russian economy needs guest workers in order to promote a steady growth rate. Nevertheless, the Kremlin has to maintain a delicate balancing act on the labor-migrant issue, given that xenophobic public attitudes remain strong.
In comments made in late January about 2009 trends, Konstantin Romodanovsky, the Russia's FMS chief, described the influx of foreign labor migrants as the "best demographic indicator in the last 15 years," the Itar-Tass news agency reported. Russia currently has the second largest population of foreign migrants in the world after the United States. Estimates on the number of labor migrants vary widely - from 4 million to 12 million.
Depending on the estimated number, guest workers account for anywhere between 7 percent and 20 percent of Russia's overall working population, which is believed to be roughly 60 million. Without foreign labor, the Russian economy might have difficulty functioning. "We have a huge country, which makes finding enough workers difficult. We are forced to rely on foreign workers," President Dmitry Medvedev explained in a late December speech.
The visa-free travel regime that Russia maintains with most CIS states enables the regular and smooth flow of guest workers to Russia. Half of all foreign migrants arrive from Central Asia, particularly the republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Others come from Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Moldova.
The importance of guest workers for the Russian economy is expected to rise, as Russia's own demographic crisis begins to bite over the next 15 years. Caused in part by a low birth rate, along with a shockingly low average life expectancy for males of only about 61 years, Russia's population is experiencing a precipitous decline. According to FMS estimates, the country's working-age population could fall by 19 million by 2026.
The use of CIS guest workers would be perhaps the easiest and most efficient way to offset the shrinkage of Russia's own labor pool. And given the ongoing economic struggles in many Central Asian states, Russia is likely to remain a magnet for foreign laborers for the foreseeable future. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Labor migration is an important economic sphere for the countries of Central Asia. In 2008, labor migrants sent more than $13 billion in officially registered remittances to friends and relatives in their home countries. (The actual amount could have been as high as $26 billion, according to World Bank data). For Tajikistan, remittances are a crucial element of the economy, accounting for nearly half of the country's GDP.
While well-managed labor migration makes sense for all involved, many Russian citizens do not see the annual influx of labor migrants as a win-win situation. Despite their important role in the Russian economy, labor migrants are often subjected to various forms of prejudice and harassment.
A 2009 survey conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center revealed that 45 percent of the respondents felt antagonistic toward non-Slavic ethnic groups, particularly those from the Caucasus (i.e. Azerbaijanis, Armenians, Georgians, Dagestanis) and Central Asia. A survey conducted in 2008 by the center showed that 55 percent of respondents favored a toughening of immigration regulations.
Meanwhile, the SOVA analytical center, which monitors extremist activity, has calculated that 400 hate crimes motivated by an ethnic bias and directed against people of "non-Slavic" appearance were committed in 2009 in Russia. A great number of these crimes, the center indicates, were committed by members of anti-immigration groups.
Some officials have argued that hate crimes grow in proportion to the influx of migrants, while others have suggested the attacks may be a backlash against an increase in financial-crisis-related criminal activity. Zhanna Zayonchkovskaya, the director of the Center for Migration Studies in Moscow, told EurasiaNet that such statements about criminality are spread deliberately by the opponents of immigration. She added that the public is often quick to buy into such misrepresentations, especially amid times of economic uncertainty.
Some Russian experts have argued that the influx of foreign labor is a form of dumping, and have called on the government to do more to protect the interests of Russian workers. Responding to these criticisms, authorities have sought to temporarily curtail the inflow of foreign labor by cutting foreign labor quotas.
Zayonchkovskaya criticized such remedies, arguing that attempts to restrict the natural flow of labor could hinder economic recovery efforts. She insisted that migrants were not taking jobs away from citizens. "There was never any competition [between migrants and citizens]. The number of publicly advertised vacancies in Moscow never dropped below 150,000. I am sure that now it is far beyond 200,000 and I don't see Muscovites rushing to take these jobs," Zayonchkovskaya stated.
Sergei Guriev, president of the New Economic School and a researcher on labor mobility, said that some of Russia's low-skilled workers are indeed competing against foreign migrants. At the same time, he admitted that an even bigger share of Russia's population benefited from the presence of guest workers. "There are many other Russians for whom foreign migrants lower the cost of services. These people have a direct personal interest in migrant labor," Guriev told EurasiaNet. "Besides, I would say that in a country as expensive as Russia, cheap foreign labor is a very important factor that maintains some sort of price competitiveness."
"It is the government's responsibility to explain to its citizens that Russia is a multi-national country, and that attracting foreign labor is in its long-term interest," Guriev added
Masha Charnay is a freelance writer based in Moscow.