Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Central Asians Workers Face Moscow Ordeal

Labourers in Russian capital are falling victim to unscrupulous bosses and corrupt officials.
By Erbol Jumagulov

Migrant workers in the Russian capital are accusing private employers of colluding with the police to have them deported without being paid for their work.

According to workers interviewed by IWPR, employers issue them with forged immigration cards and then tip off the police when the construction project has been finished.

Zakirjon Rakhimov, from Fergana in Uzbekistan, was deported from Moscow on June 2 for immigration offences. He, and the twelve other Uzbek workers with whom he had spent two months building a dacha (summer house) for a Russian government official, will be returning home to their families empty handed.

Rakhimov was one of several Central Asian workers interviewed by IWPR while waiting to be deported at a Moscow station.

“If we knew that this was going to happen, we would have demanded genuine immigration cards before we started,” said another man, Rustam Bakaev, who was being kicked out of the country after falling victim to the scam.

He says that he and many others in the same situation were unaware that they had been staying in Russia illegally, “We were given migration cards and told that everything was in order - we believed them.”

The construction workers say they knew nothing about their employer or his assistants, who disappeared as soon as the Uzbeks had been taken to the police. Immigration officials refused to accept their claims that they had been exploited. “They hardly listened to us,” said Rakhimov, pointing to the uniformed officials standing nearby.

The officers accompanying the men refused to be interviewed, although they confirmed that they were being deported for carrying counterfeit immigration papers.

Providing builders with false immigration cards is now common practice among employers in the Russian capital, according to Polat Jamalov, deputy chair of the Moscow House of Nationalities, which is part of the Moscow administration.

“It is very inconvenient for employers to officially register their construction workers - it takes a lot of time, so the employers strike a deal with the immigration service and the police. Once the work has finished the employers tip off the officials who carry out a raid,” he said.

False immigration cards can be easily bought for between 500 and 1000 rubles, and workers are often charged with forgery in addition to immigration offences.

“Officially, the police are just doing their job but in reality this is a well-planned and coordinated scam. Migrant workers have no idea what a genuine immigration card should look like,” said Jamalov.

A new three-storey mansion in Moscow can cost anything between three and ten million US dollars, and they are being put up at an astonishing rate. There are no official figures giving the number of migrant workers employed at these sites, but unofficial estimates put it as high as three thousand, many of whom will be deported without being paid.

“Most of them do not suspect that they will be exploited. That is why they go and build dachas,” said Sooronbai Dyikanov, an adviser to the Kyrgyz ambassador in Moscow. “There is very little we can do because officially they have broken immigration laws.”

To compound the problem, deportees have a stamp put in their passport which prevents them from returning to Russian for five years. For many, including Zakirjon Rakhimov, seasonal construction work in Russia is their only source of income.

“What will I do now?” Rakhimov asked, on the verge of tears. “I have been coming to Moscow every spring and summer for the past four years. I can earn enough to live for a year in Uzbekistan. Now I won’t be able to do this for another five years,” he said, showing the stamp in his passport. “For four years I worked on large construction projects and was never cheated.”

Although large construction companies pay salaries in full, even they tend not to register their workers officially.

“I try not to wander far from the dormitory that we are put up in to avoid catching the eye of the police,” said Tashbolot Alybaev from Osh in Kyrgyzstan. “I have heard about how construction workers are cheated at private building sites - that is why I work on large projects. There is less risk of ending up without any pay.”

Building workers on large state-run projects usually live in dormitories which are officially owned by educational institutions. Those working on private construction projects, often have to live on site in poor conditions.

“This spring was very wet. We had to live without heating and washed in cold water,” said Ilkhom Abdullaev, another Uzbek working at a private construction site in the greater Moscow area. However, unlike the men being deported, he says he was lucky enough to find an honest employer who pays him in installment and in full.

Arkady Obukhov, a political analyst based in Moscow, believes that the situation is unlikely to change if the city administration continues to turn a blind eye to corruption in the police force.

Although the Moscow prosecutor’s press office denied corruption within the police force, one official from the department, who agreed to speak to IWPR on condition of anonymity, told a different story.

"It’s a simple mechanism, but not very pleasant. The whole of the Moscow administration’s policy is directed against immigrants. Following the explosions on the metro they tightened immigration rules and increased the fines tenfold. Ninety-nine per cent of the guest workers can’t speak Russian, let alone have any idea how to defend themselves if they are exploited. [The employers] cheat them and will continue to cheat them because working for the police in Russia is not a job – it is an endless process of taking bribes while ignoring the law and human rights.”

According to one builder from Tajikistan, the only form of redress that workers have against bad employers is to take their own revenge.

“As soon as we realised that we were going to be cheated, we put several empty glass bottles and a dozen eggs in the walls. The bottles will make the walls echo and soon the smell of rotten eggs will make the house unusable,” he said.

Erbol Jumagulov is an independent journalist in Moscow.