Ukrainians are taking advantage of eased restrictions to find work in the European Union, data show, creating an economic lifeline for Ukraine’s embattled economy.
A turning point for Ukrainian labor migration occurred in 2014, when Ukraine signed an association agreement with the European Union and concurrently became embroiled in a conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Donbas region. The combination of events redirected the flow of Ukrainian guest workers away from Russia toward the West, facilitating a rapid increase in the numbers of those working legally abroad.
State Migration Service data show that in 2010-12, almost 1.2 million Ukrainians worked abroad. In 2019, the number stood at 3.2 million, according to Ukraine’s Ministry of Social Policy. Of that 2019 total, upwards of 2.7 million found work in the EU, according to a European Commission paper published in April, which adds that roughly one in seven wage-earning Ukrainians is a labor migrant.
Prolonged domestic economic dysfunction, due largely to the government’s inability to tame corruption, is the primary impetus for workers’ out-migration, explained Vasyl Lopukh, the administrative director at the Shevchenko Scientific Society, a New York-based institution dedicated to the study of Ukraine. “They [government officials] create a trend of stagnation in [domestic] workforce demand that encourages Ukrainians to search for employment abroad,” Lopukh said.
Prior to 2014, Russia was the primary destination for Ukrainian labor migrants. But the Kremlin’s seizure of Crimea and its dealings in the Donbas produced a sudden shift in Ukrainian migration patterns toward the EU, especially Poland. From 2014-16, the EU experienced a 42 percent increase in the number of Ukrainian labor migrants. In 2019, Almost 1 million Ukrainians worked in Poland’s agricultural sector.
Kyiv adopted a law on external labor migration in 2015 that aims to strengthen social and legal protections for those who find work abroad. The government additionally implemented an action plan in 2017 to “ensure the reintegration of migrant workers and their family members into society. That same year authorities approved a labor migration strategy through 2025.
The regulatory changes streamlined the process for Ukrainian to work abroad and made hiring procedures easier for employers in host countries. In 2019, almost 1,800 firms in the EU had formal employment arrangements in place for skilled Ukrainian workers.
Remittances have risen along with the number of labor migrants.
In 2018, Ukrainian labor migrants sent home over $14.7 billion in remittances, according to the World Bank, marking a 17 percent year-on-year increase. In 2019, the figure rose to $15.8 billion, equivalent to 9.5 percent of GDP. The number is expected to fall sharply across the region during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The Ukrainian economy depends on external labor migration,” said Maryna Prykhnodko, a board member of Razom, a U.S.-based non-profit that promotes education and entrepreneurship in Ukraine. “Many regions, especially those along the Western border of Ukraine, build their entire local and regional economies around labor migration and have fully integrated labor migration into their organizational structures.”
Mariya Chukhnova is a student at Columbia University.