Who is Sweeping Our Streets? A Close Look at Labour Trafficking in Russia

The fact that a rather well-known Tajik pop singer Nigina Amonkulova has released a music video about labour migration[i] highlights the extent to which this issue has become ingrained in everyday lives of millions of people both in Russia and in many of the former Soviet Republics. Interestingly, according to ASIA-Plus, the video was made with the support of International Organization for Migration (IOM).[ii] The description of the video reads:

“A wife who stayed at home [in Tajikistan] learns computer skills and becomes a sole provider for her family.”[iii]

According to 2018 report by Center of Strategic Research, approximately 4 million labour migrants (mostly from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) have been legally arriving in Russia with the intent to work at any given time between 2013 and 2017.[iv] Admittedly, the means by which migrant workers enter Russia and obtain employment are not exclusively lawful. For example, 2017 Trafficking in Persons report indicates that 1.5 million “irregular migrants” are estimated to be engaged in Russian labour market in some form.[v] Certain human rights activists even allege that in Moscow alone there are as many as 3 million migrant workers, with a fair share of them being employed illicitly.[vi] Consequently, a lack of a lawful status in a foreign country is obviously correlated with the individuals’ susceptibility to human trafficking, even in the areas that are not typically viewed as underground labour practices, such as street sweeping.[vii]

In this blog post, I will analyze the factors that put immigrant workers employed in this sector of the labour market at risk of trafficking, as well as attempt to illustrate how Russia’s recent systematic implementation of stricter immigration policies has negatively affected the likelihood of legal employment among labour migrants from the former Soviet Republics.

Immigration Laws: Before and After

In his interview with Sputnik Uzbekistan, an immigration lawyer Batyrzhon Shermatov made the claim that up until 2008, it used to be relatively easy for the Uzbek migrant workers to legally obtain the necessary paperwork to secure employment in Russia. After 2008, according to Shermatov, the regulations governing labour migration have been gradually changing in the direction of tighter control.[viii]

The active discussion of the potential adaptation of significantly stricter immigration laws was initiated in 2012.[ix] Starting from 2013, according to RBK, Russia has enacted a policy[x] that implied larger fines and longer re-entry bans for violators detained in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and surrounding areas.[xi]  In 2014, RBK reported yet another change, this time aimed at the reduction of quotas for foreign visitors allowed to enter Russia for work by approximately 10 percent.[xii] Unsurprisingly, by May 2016, as The Moscow Times notes, more than 70 percent of immigration lawsuits resulted in the deportation of the defendants.[xiii] The trend with Russia’s tougher stance on labour migration continues. For example, Ministry of Labour and Social Protection has announced its plans to reduce the quota for foreign employees in 2018 by 20% compared to 2017.[xiv]

Unfortunately, according to RBK, the problem with this approach to the prevention of immigration and labour crimes has the potential of simply causing the immigrant workers to go underground.[xv] However, in order to fully understand the reasons that might impel a foreign visitor to break the immigration law, it is necessary to address the ways by which migrants can legally enter the territory of the Russian Federation. Basically, a foreign citizen is not always required to have a visa to cross the Russian border; according to Consular Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, citizens of countries such as, for instance, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, can enter Russia without a visa.[xvi] All they have to do is fill out a “migration card” which, among other personal data, requires the visitors to indicate the reason of their entry.[xvii] It should now be clear how compelling it might be for a potential labour migrant to misrepresent the purpose of their travel, and thereby bypass the red tape, compounded by ignorance, errors, and corruption, that would otherwise await them even before they cross the border.[xviii]

Cleaning Industry in Russia: The Dead Souls

The reason why I wanted to focus on this sector of the labour market in Russia specifically is that the way street cleaning works in big Russian cities essentially perpetuates the labour crisis. In 2015, a St. Petersburg newspaper Fontanka conducted an investigation that was aimed at illuminating the effect of a financial crisis in the Russian economy on the quality of street cleaning. According to Fontanka, certain cleaning service providers in St. Petersburg employed the “dead souls” strategy when dealing with the lack of the eligible job candidates willing to work long hours for miniscule salaries.[xix]

Those familiar with Russian literature would immediately recall Nikolai Gogol’s famous novel by the same title, Mertvye dushi (The Dead Souls), in which the protagonist (Chichikov), in the hope of acquiring wealth and status in the society, keeps purchasing the so-called “dead-souls” (serfs who have died but are still listed as living in the most recent census report) from various land owners for a fee that was below the market price at the time.[xx]

Akin to Chichikov, many cleaning companies in St. Petersburg nominally employ Russian citizens (typically those are relatives of the official employees of the company) who then are not expected to show up for work.[xxi] Their salaries are instead redistributed between multiple migrant workers who are willing to be employed illegally.[xxii] It is also important to point out that the issue of the “dead souls” is not an exclusively St. Petersburg’s problem. For example, a little over a week ago, a similar incident was uncovered in Moscow.[xxiii]

As many human rights activists, journalists, and scholars note, the downside of this strategy for the workers is that unlawful employment deprives them from having the protection that their legally employed counterparts are entitled to. This is obviously an extremely precarious situation that can very easily lead to labour abuse. Without proper immigration paperwork and official job contracts to corroborate their claims for fair pay, migrant employees do not have the option of pursuing their interests in court. Essentially, all the company needs to do in order not to pay their salaries is to threaten to denounce them to the immigration authorities. According to Bloomberg, this was precisely the case for many migrant workers from the former Soviet republics who were involved in the construction of a large apartment complex about 10 miles outside of Moscow:

“Sixty-year-old Murad Yermolatov is similarly despondent. A father of five, he came to Russia with the promise of work in the town of Khimki. All went well for two months, but then he was fired. Having changed several jobs, he ended up at Samolyot [a new apartment complex], where his troubles really started. He was paid for a few weeks before the money dried up. He continued working—10 hours a day, six days a week, for six months—but was eventually paid less than a third of what he was promised. He hoped to send money to his family in the Samarkand region of Uzbekistan, but now he can’t scrape together enough to even get home.”[xxiv]

A similar opinion is expressed by Ekaterina Ivanova, a political scientist from Russian People’s Friendship University:

“Illegal labour migrants have absolutely no social protection. They have neither a work permit, nor a job contract, and rely solely on a spoken agreement with an employer. Deceived workers cannot prove anything to anyone.”[xxv]

The Reality of Being an Immigrant Worker: The Larger Reasons at Play

So, if the reality of being a labour migrant in Russia is so grim, why are people still migrating to Russia and subjecting themselves to being in positions that put them at risk?

Close Proximity and Shared History

As I was looking for an image that would provide a quick visual illustration of the common history that Russia shares with the former Soviet republics like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, I was fortunate enough to find this map of the former USSR[xxvi] on the Encyclopedia Britannica website. I hope that even without a thorough and detailed account of what the relationship between the Soviet states used to be before the system fell apart, this image would make it clear where the visa-free agreements that I touched upon in the second section of this blog post actually stem from. Now, if we consider how geographically close to Russia many of the migrant workforce providing countries are, as well as how (relatively) easy it is for their citizens to obtain employment (legal and otherwise) in large Russian cities, it becomes clearer why so many people make the choice to travel to Russia for work, despite the many difficulties they might have to face.

The Status of Russia as a Colonial Power

Of course, it is also important to account for the legacy of the USSR as a colonial project when talking about the workforce migration to Russia. As Anca Baicoianu notes, the Soviet Union was probably no less of a colonial power at the time of its prime than any European empire, with the only major difference being its internal expansion.[xxvii] While labour migrants from the former Soviet republics obviously have their own personal reasons for seeking employment in Russia, be it seasonal or long-term, it is still important to keep in mind where these ideas of the “Russian Dream” originate. Going back to Nigina Amonkulova’s music video, I wanted to point out how effective it is at illuminating the stereotypes of better life prospects awaiting migrant workers in Moscow that apparently still permeate through the culture of countries like Tajikistan. All of the images that Amonkulova’s video shows – The Red Square, smartphones, fancy clothes, and high salaries – reflect the expectations that many labour migrants likely have with regard to their Russian experience.


[i] “Нигина Амонкулова – Ёри мусофир / Nigina Amonqulova – Yori Musofir (2015), YouTube video, 05:05, Song performed by Nigina Amonkulova, Posted by “Tamoshow,” January 3, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=165&v=RHHI5lC9uyk.

For reference see:

Nigina Amonkulova on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/artist/2wRlCXY57f9P9Ol7XuumH6.

[ii] “Niginа Amonkulova spela pesniu pro migrantov.” ASIA-Plus, January 4, 2016. http://www.news.tj/ru/news/life/culture/20160104/nigina-amonkulova-spela-pesnyu-pro-migrantov.

[iii] “Niginа Amonkulova spela pesniu pro migrantov.” My translation from Russian:

“Супруга, оставшаяся на родине, обучается компьютерным навыкам, и, зарабатывая самостоятельно, одна поднимает детей.”

[iv] E. B. Demintseva, N.V. Mkrtchan, and Iu. F. Florinskaia, “Migratsionnaia politika: diagnostika, vyzovy, predlozhenia,” Chelovecheskii kapital (Tsentr strategicheskikh razrabotok. Vyshaia shkola ekonomiki. Natsional’nyi issledovatel’skii universitet, January 26, 2018), 9-11, https://www.csr.ru/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/20180126_Report-Migration-Web.pdf.

[v] “Trafficking in Persons Report 2017” (U.S. Department of State, 2017), 337-38. https://www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/2017/index.htm.

[vi] Iulia Reprintseva and Viacheslav Polovinko, “Vezenie i trud. Chto prikhoditsia perezhit’ migrantu, chtoby dobrat’sia do Rossii i poluchit’ zdes’ vse neobkhodimye dokumenty,” Navaia Gazeta | Novayagazeta.ru, February 1, 2018, sec. Obshchestvo, https://www.novayagazeta.ru/articles/2018/02/02/75365-vezenie-i-trud.

[vii] “Trafficking in Persons Report 2017,” 337-38.

[viii] Anton Kurilkin, “Iurist: biurokratia vynuzhdaet migrantov narushat’ zakon,” Sputnik Uzbekistan, October 25, 2017, sec. Migratsionnoe zakonodatel’stvo Rossii, https://ru.sputniknews-uz.com/analytics/20171025/6650677/burokratiya-vinujdaet-migrantov-narushat-zakon.html.

[ix] “Migration Law Violators to Be Banned from Entering Russia – Putin,” RT International, January 26, 2012, https://www.rt.com/politics/putin-ban-migrants-entry-755/.

[x]Federal’nyi zakon (ot 23.07.2013 № 207-FZ) o vnesenii izmenenii v otdel’nye zakonodatel’nye akty Rossiiskoi Federatsii v tseliakh sovershenstvovania migratsionnogo zakonodatel’stva i otvetstvennosti za ego narushenie,” Pravo.gov.ru | Gosudarstvennaia sistema pravovoi informatsii, July 23, 2013.

[xi] “Peterburgskim nelegalam otnyne ne izbezhat’ vysylki,” РБК | RBC.ru, sec. Obshchestvo, accessed March 5, 2018, https://www.rbc.ru/spb_sz/09/08/2013/5592a87c9a794719538d0128.

[xii] “Peterburg s metloi: kuda delis’ russkie dvorniki?,” РБК | RBC.ru, August 23, 2013, sec. Obshchestvo, https://www.rbc.ru/spb_sz/23/08/2013/5592a8a59a794719538d0364.

[xiii] “Half a Million Foreigners Deported From Russia in 4 Years,” The Moscow Times, May 10, 2016, http://themoscowtimes.com/articles/half-a-million-foreigners-deported-from-russia-in-4-years-52816.

[xiv] Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, “Mintrud Rossii predlagaet snizit’ bolee chem na 20% kvotu na privlechenie inostrannykh rabotnikov v 2018 godu,” October 26, 2017, https://rosmintrud.ru/employment/migration/630.

[xv] “Peterburg s metloi: kuda delis’ russkie dvorniki?”

[xvi] Consular Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, “Nalichie bezvizovogo rezhima pri v’’ezde v inostrannye gosudarstva dlia grazhdan Rossiiskoi Federatsii, iavliaiushchikhsia vladel’tsami diplomaticheskikh, sluzhebnykh i obshchegrazhdanskikh pasportov,” Kdmid.ru, March 1, 2018, http://www.kdmid.ru/info.aspx?lst=info_wiki&it=/Spisok_stran_s_uproshchennym_poryadkom_vyezda.aspx.

[xvii]Federal’nyi zakon (ot 18.07.2006 № 109-FZ) o migratsionnom uchete inostrannykh grazhdan i lits bez grazhdanstva v Rossiiskoi Federatsii,” Pravo.gov.ru | Gosudarstvennaia sistema pravovoi informatsii, July 18, 2006.

[xviii] Reprintseva and Polovinko, “Vezenie i trud. Chto prikhoditsia perezhit’ migrantu, chtoby dobrat’sia do Rossii i poluchit’ zdes’ vse neobkhodimye dokumenty.”

Additionally, see Moskovskii dom natsional’nostei, “Komissiia po bezopasnosti, obshchestvennoi diplomatii i obshchestvennomu kontroliu Soveta po delam natsional’nostei pri Pravitel’stve Moskvy. Kruglyi stol ‘Korruptsiia v sfere migratsii,’” Mdn.ru, January 29, 2018, https://mdn.ru/report/kruglyj-stol-korruptsiya-v-sfere-migratsii.

[xix] Andrei Zakharov, “Peterburg ostanetsia bez dvornikov,” Fontanka.Ru | Peterburgskaia internetgazeta, January 12, 2015, http://www.fontanka.ru/2015/01/12/118/.

Additionally, see Roman Kizyma, “«Mertvye dushi» ubirali ulitsy v tsentre Peterburga,” РБК | RBC.ru, April 21, 2015, https://www.rbc.ru/spb_sz/21/04/2015/5592b0659a794719538d414d.

[xx] Nikolai Vasil’evich Gogol’, Pokhozhdenia Chichikova, ili, Mertvye dushi: a poem (Berlin: Izd-vo I.P. Ladyzhnikova, 1920).

[xxi] Zakharov, “Peterburg ostanetsia bez dvornikov.” Additionally, see “V Peterburge kliningovuiu firmu oshtrafovali na 1,4 mln za nelegal’nykh migrantov,” Fontanka.Ru | Peterburgskaia internet-gazeta, July 30, 2015, http://www.fontanka.ru/2015/07/30/017/.

[xxii] Zakharov, “Peterburg ostanetsia bez dvornikov.”

[xxiii] Dmitrii Serkov and Sofiia Sardzhveladze, “Politsiia vozbudila 20 del o dvornikakh – ‘mertvykh dushakh’ v ‘Zhilishchnike,’” РБК | RBC.ru, February 26, 2018, sec. Obshchestvo, https://www.rbc.ru/society/26/02/2018/5a93d59f9a794734666d09d7?from=center_6.

[xxiv] Leonid Ragozin, “Russia Wants Immigrants the World Doesn’t,” Bloomberg.Com, March 14, 2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2017-03-14/russia-s-alternative-universe-immigrants-welcome.

[xxv] Ekaterina Aleksandrovna Ivanova, “Problemy migratsii v Moskve i vozmozhnye puti ikh reshenia,” Vestnik Rossiiskogo universiteta druzhby narodov, Politologia, no. 2 (2010): 102. My translation from Russian:

“Приезжие нелегальные работники абсолютно не защищены социально. Они не имеют ни разрешения на работу, ни трудового договора и руководствуются лишь устной договоренностью с работодателем. Обманутые работники ничего никому не могут доказать.”

[xxvi] Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: Geography. 2012. Digital Image. Britannica Kids. https://media1.britannica.com/eb-media/28/96328-050-EF39A054.gif.

The full Encyclopedia Britannica’s article on the USSR can be accessed here: “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” Britannica Kids, https://kids.britannica.com/kids/article/Union-of-Soviet-Socialist-Republics/353884.

[xxvii] Anca Baicoianu, “Is the ‘Colonial’ in ‘Post-Colonial’ the ‘Soviet’ in ‘Post-Soviet’? The Boundaries of Postcolonial Studies,” Dacoromania Litteraria, Revisiting Empires, no. 2 (2015): 90–100.

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