‘Very few migrants remaining’

Russia needs more migrant workers for construction and agriculture

‘Very few migrants remaining’
Photo: Federation Council

Russia and Central Asia used to co-operate on labour migration, and the co-operation was mutually beneficial. The former solved its labour shortages, while the latter reduced unemployment and received cash inflow. However, the COVID -19 pandemic affected the number of migrant workers negatively.

Russia is struggling with labour shortages after border closures to stem the spread of coronavirus sharply reduced the traditional cross-border migration flows from Central Asia, says The Financial Times. According to the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), there were 5,5 million foreigners in Russia at the beginning of April, which was 42% fewer than a year ago. “We have had very few migrants remaining over the past year,” stated the Kremlin’s Spokesman Dmitry Peskov last month adding that the country was in dire need of these migrants “to implement our ambitious plans” and “build more than we are building now”.

Migrant workers are particularly in demand in Russia’s construction industry. Deputy Prime Minister for Construction and Regional Development Marat Khusnullin estimates the shortage of migrant workers in construction at 1,5-2 million. “We believe this is one of the key factors holding back construction development as a whole,” he said. Labour shortages have already pushed construction workers’ salaries up by 50%, but “even while paying double it is extremely hard to find people,” commented the official.

Agriculture is another Russian industry heavily dependent on migrant workers. In some southern regions such as Volgograd and Astrakhan, foreigners accounted for 60% of the labour force during the high season, said Deputy Minister of Agriculture Dzhambulat Khatuov earlier this year. He explained that locals lacked necessary skills and didn’t want to work in the fields even at higher salaries. The Ministry of Agriculture plans to spend 184 million rubles ($2,5 million) on additional recruitment for farmers.

Migrant camp in Golyanovo, Russia, 2013. Photo: Evgeny Feldman

At the same time, the Kremlin’s policy on immigration remains rather tough. The hiatus allowing those migrants who are already in Russia to apply for extensions of their work permits by three extra months is meant to expire in June. Last month, First Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Alexander Gorovoy warned that about a million unregistered migrants living in Russia must leave the country by that deadline under threat of deportation. He pointed out that Russia could close its border with countries whose citizens did not comply.

The majority (about 85%) of migrants in Russia come from the Commonwealth of Independent States, according to RANEPA. However, the flow of migrants from the Baltic states, Moldova and Ukraine has dropped dramatically in recent years, says the academy’s research fellow Nikita Mkrtchan. He warns that in future, “we can count on a very [limited] increase in migrants and a narrow range of countries supplying them”. At the moment, Russia is heavily reliant on Central Asia, but CEO of the Berlin-based Institute on Migration Policy Olga Gulina considers that it would be a mistake to think migration from the region will remain purely Russia-oriented. “It is gaining speed in the EU, too. The proportions are very small, but they were non-existent 20 years ago,” she points out.

By Anna Litvina