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Feature Story June 29, 2006
The Grapes of Wrath
Down & Out With Moscow’s Tajik Gastarbeiters By Jake Rudnitsky Browse author Email

Moscow labor organizers thought they were onto something last year when they came up with a way to recruit migrant construction workers into a newly formed union: free travel. The one catch was that you'd have to be dead to take advantage of the offer. The union had reached a deal with Tajikistan Airlines to fly gastarbeiters' corpses home for free. After all, what Allah-fearing Tajik peasant could say no to an offer this sweet? Islamic law calls for a swift burial and an anonymous cremation in a Moscow morgue hardly fits the bill.

The strategy has helped double membership since last September, but that only means an anemic 4000 members. According to one union organizer I spoke to, there are up to 200,000 migrant workers from Central Asia in Moscow, and a million in Russia. Some estimates say that 20 million migrants work in Russia at some point during the year. Of them, some 600,000 are Tajiks one in every 10 Tajiks in the world and half of them work construction. So the migrant's union represents less than 1 percent of Tajik construction workers.

Yet they would seem to need unions more than anyone. The BBC says that Tajik poverty statistics compare unfavorably to many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and in the pecking order of Moscow's migrant workers, they're on the bottom rung. Their country was wracked by civil war in the 1990s, the biggest of all the ex-Soviet wars, leaving some 200,000 dead. They arrive generally unskilled, often don't speak Russian, and are so desperate and vulnerable that they're an easy target for exploitation. Drive down Yaroslavsky Shosse any day of the week and you can see a huge slave market of Tajiks milling around, waiting to be picked up for a day's labor. For a few hundred rubles, paid at the end of the day, a Tajik can be yours. Everything from clearing land at the dacha to building city fire stations is done by this cheap, semi-legal labor.

Their low salaries only scratch the surface of how depressing their lives are. Even though they're in plain sight, the conditions they live in are so inconceivable that it's easy look right through them. Their lives consist of pure misery and humiliation, which they tolerate for as long as possible usually 2 to 3 years before they return home with hopefully a small nut.

For Tajiks, coming to Moscow is something like serving in the army, a right of passage that almost everyone goes through. But the army's got some excitement and variation, and features the prospect of trading up from hazee to hazer in a year. For Tajiks, the only redemption working in Moscow comes at the end of their terms of indentured servitude. And for what? At the end of their time here, if they spent 3 years with only a day or two off a month, they'll be lucky to have made 9 grand. Of course, that's only if they never got stiffed out of a paycheck, robbed, deported, or killed by skinheads or cops.

Nine thousand dollars. Enough to buy a used Zhiguli, some electronic devices for the few hours a day their hut has electricity and the startup capital for a micro-business making manti, or whatever one can hawk in Tajikistan. Three years of backbreaking slavery for a Zhiguli and a Chinese 21-inch TV. Actually, they get more than that. What three years of slavery really buys is someone's daughter back home; they endure hell to become solvent enough to afford a wife.

Before they get there, however, they live in places like the bizarre moonscape "village" I visited on a construction site near the Metro Cash & Carry off of Lykovsky prospekt, where over 250 migrant workers are working and living. All types of Soviet nationalities were represented, from Moldavians and Uzbeks to Ukrainians and provincial Russians, but the biggest contingent was Tajik. Each group stuck with its own, living eight to a wagon that measured perhaps 2 by 8 meters, with a single window at the far end. There were over thirty of these wagons stacked two high in the village I visited. Nearby, the site had another pile of wagons roughly the same size, over on a ridge fortified by a 5 meter high cement wall, meaning there were maybe 500 guys working on this site.

The facilities were totally primitive. About 10 ramshackle port-a-potties were set up across from the wagons' entry, some 5 meters away. These units were so run down that not all the doors would shut properly. They were close enough that a powerful stench of shit and masking agents hung around everything. Between the wagons and the toilets, in what was the only open space available, there was a mound of jack-hammered chunks of pavement plied a meter high. Nothing green grew on the packed dirt ground, and the nearest running water was about 5 minutes away, where they would fill up 10-gallon jugs and lug them back to keep potable water on hand. Judging by most workers' BO, bathing was a luxury not often indulged.

Adding to the prison-camp-like atmosphere was the fact that the village was entirely enclosed. At the far end a dirt path led to the construction site and the only way in or out was past a shlag-baum [gate], guard house and a huge dog. The guard was technically to protect the workers and the site, but it gave the place a sinister GULAG feel.

Almost every construction site in Moscow's got similar stacks of corrugated metal wagons housing workers. If you've never noticed them, it's because a normal person would assume that they're used for storing building materi- als. It's almost unfathomable that people live in these things. The weather was so hot that it never occurred to me to ask how they heat them in the winter, but they've probably got to make do with a space heater and body heat.

Understandably, no one would let me into their trailers, but all the doors were open to catch a breeze. Peeking inside was all I needed to realize that I've never seen worse accommodations in my life. The sweatshops filled with Chinese girls packed 10 to a room that I visited in the Far East are the Burj al Arab compared to these caves. Those wagons the Pakistanis lived in Syriana were Four Seasons suites by comparison. The wood-paneled interiors are lit by a few bare bulbs and have a small foyer for work clothes and hard hats. Beyond that there wasn't much room for anything but a chainik, hot plate and bunks.

Everyone throws in 1000 rubles a month for food (I'm guessing they don't get a lot of veggies), and one guy's only job is cooking for the community. According to the guys I talked with, everyone's too exhausted after work for racial tension to be much of an issue. After grueling 12 hour days of manual labor, they're too tired to do just about anything. When I arrived after 7, at the end of a workday, most people were just mulling around, squatting Central Asia-style on the asphalt, smoking, chatting and waiting for dinner.

Not all the laborers are peasants. There were several guys with higher educations, and even a newly arrived doctor. It's kind of like the way you used to be able to find Russian astrophysicists driving NY cabs. Except the cab drivers might have a less glamorous job, but they made decent money and had better lives than the USSR offered them.

Actually, most of the guys I talked were educated, because most of the peasants never learned Russian. Mohammed, a 26-year-old male nurse I talked with who's been in Moscow for over two years now, told me his salary in the Dushanbe outskirts had been about $50 a month, pretty decent for that part of the world. "It was enough to live on," he said. "But forget about buying anything but the essentials." He was still single, although he hoped that would change when he finally returned home at the start of fall. When I asked him about how often he took a day off, he said, "Every few weeks to do laundry and some errands. That's it. Why waste time?"

My escort to the site was union boss Magomedamir Sadrudinov and one of his organizers. None of the guys were technically union members, but it's a distinction that made little difference. Sadrudinov was willing to offer whatever help he could. While the union theoretically maintained a different organizer at this work site, you wouldn't know it from talking to the Tajiks. Most of the workers barely knew the guy's name, and he'd apparently never mentioned anything about a union to them.

It's moments like that when my understanding of Russia breaks down. According to Sadrudinov, organizers don't get paid, but there must be something in it for them. The gold-toothed organizer with us changed from his work clothes into a suit when we met, and the fact that he had a mobile showed he was better-off than the others. But I couldn't figure out how exactly he stood to benefit.

Weirder still is that this site's organizer hadn't even mentioned the union to anyone. I'd met the organizer Elchibek two days previous at the offices of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR), and he tried hard to impress. However, as Sadrudinov repeatedly told me, "You can tell them what they need to do all day long, but you can't get them to listen." Condescending, yes, but it came from experience.

Our timing was fortuitous, because four Tajiks had been served with deportation papers the day before. Since Elchibek hadn't mentioned the union, they had no idea where to turn or what their rights were. Sadrudinov became that guy.

Umar Naimov, a 22-year-old Tajik from the kishlak Ilych, was one of the four and became their representative, since he spoke Russian the best. He'd been in Moscow since 2002 and looks about 10 years older than he is, with a pock-ravaged face and knotted muscles that were clearly the product of work rather than bodybuilding. He was desperately looking to stay, as his family relies on the remittances he sends home. In heavily accented Russian, he asked Sadrudinov about his options. Unfortunately, he didn't have many.

Sadrudinov, an affable Dagestani Avar, said he'd try to pull some strings but, he pointed out that no laws were being broken. "It's not like not paying wages," he said. "Just because the police use selective enforcement doesn't make what they're doing any less legal."

The deportation notice was totally arbitrary (all the workers were unregistered, but only for got served) and a shock to the workers. Every month, the site contractor took 1000 rubles supposedly for protection. The Tajiks assumed that they wouldn't get touched as long as they made their payments. Sadrudinov said that the payments were useless. He claims that the police have a quota and every month around this time start serving migrant workers with deportation papers. Still, last year he helped about 60 members avoid deportation, and clearly has some pull.

There's more than meets the eye with Sadrudinov, who drives a relatively new Audi A4. The FNPR, Russia's largest union by far, inherited the bulk of property of the Soviet trade union system, which operated as a benefit-distributing arm of employers rather than a workers' union. For example, when workers went on vacation to the Black Sea, they'd stay at a union sanatorium. As such, the FNPR owns tons of property all over Russia, making it the country's largest property owner. So maybe it's not so strange that Sadrudinov is so dokhodni.

It also explains why employers don't feel threatened by unionization drives. Theoretically, the guard could have has- sled us or denied us entrance, but instead he restrained the dog for us. Official unions have very cozy relationships with employers in Russia, often acting more as arbiters than workers' advocates. The migrant worker union even recruits for employers that it trusts, gathering together skilled workers and providing them with contracts.

Even so, it's hard to criticize what Sadrudinov is doing with the Tajiks. They're the first to admit that their main grievances are the constant threat of deportation and getting cheated out of their rightful salaries by unscrupulous employers. Issues like working 12-hour days seven days a week, living like sardines in windowless crates and the often fatal working conditions don't even make the list. That's just par for the course.

Sadrudinov points out that union members also have less chance of simply disappearing. The death rate among migrant construction workers is astronomical and, according to the ILO, vastly under-reported. For example, in the first half of 2003 GosKomStat figures said that 200 migrant workers died, while unofficial estimates for all of 2002 said 800 workers died. There's an easy explanation for the discrepancy. "Last year of a worker fell off the fifth floor and his body was left there until the end of the day," he told me. "Then the fore- man took the body out to the woods and dumped it. I've heard variations on that theme more often than you care to know." Even the official statistics would mean that migrant construction workers are 2.5 times more likely to die on the job than other Russian workers.

Some of Sadrudinov's ideas sounded more like fantasy than fact. For example, he told of a plan to use hidden video cameras to establish that a group of workers really worked for companies that were trying to screw them out of their salaries. The issue of non-payment is huge for migrants. "Some employers will hire Tajiks for 3 months and not pay them, then switch to Uzbeks for three months," he said. "In that manner, they'll move through all the Republics." The union got its start last June with the help of the UN-funded International Labor Organization. Boris Sushenko, the head of the Union of Russian Builders where Sadrudinov works, clearly doesn't put much stock in the migrant worker union, but at least he didn't disrupt it. "There's no funding, and without money it's impossible to do much," he said.

That just wasn't true, though. The union is currently trying to spread across Russia, to service centers of migrant workers in cities everywhere. Ironically, to hear Sadrudinov tell it, the biggest obstacle they were facing wasn't from employers many of whom actually supported the idea of a union but from the migrant workers themselves. The workers are so uneducated, beaten down and exploited that they instinctively fear attention. "You can tell them you're here to help, but they'll still lump you in the 'bosses' category," Sadrudinov said. "Must be the duds." There're plenty of misunderstandings to go around, on everything from the union's Tajik organizers' role to whether it's a good idea to have membership cards include a photo. Lots of the problems are no doubt related to the fact that most Tajiks here don't speak much Russian. Even organizers like Elchibik are laborers themselves and speak Russian with difficulty. While Tajiks old enough to have served in the Red Army tend to speak Russian decently, the younger generation never learned.

To an outsider, it would seem that the union doesn't have much to offer Tajiks. For token membership dues (100 rubles a month), the union's basic role is to ensure that the workers get paid on time and no-one screws them out of their salary. It can also help with registration, but it's prohibitively expensive for most workers. Getting registered with the authorities runs 4000 rubles for six months, or roughly a month's salary every year. It's not surprising that even those who know the union can get them registered are hesitant to fork over that kind of money.

But not getting registered leaves the workers dangerously exposed. Russian laws aren't particularly good at protecting individual citizens, but its migrant workers have it far worse. The Russian government isn't organized enough to have an equivalent to the INS, which rarely lets a nabbed illegal out of its sight until they've been processed and shipped off of US soil. The Tajiks who'd been served with deportation papers were given a stamped judgment and 10 days to get out of the country, using their own money.

The union claims to have gotten employers to cough up over 5 million rubles owed to its members (and its members' coworkers) since the start of the year. Virtually no migrant workers sign contracts, which makes it even easier to rob them blind. Since they're terrified of having the authorities notified and there's no proof of employment to begin with, all it takes is a threat to call the Migration Service to scare them into backing off.

The government has been making noises about making life more bearable for migrant workers since last year, including clarifying their legal status, reducing registration fees to a much more manageable 400 rubles, and announcing an amnesty. The rational is that they're an economic boon, provided the migrants are working at jobs that Russians wouldn't want anyways. But, as with many good ideas in the Russian government, these reforms have stalled, as evidenced by the four deportations I learned about.

Migrant rights coincide with one of Putin's biggest priorities, stemming Russia's population loss and the resulting drop in productivity. Just last Monday Putin signed a Russian version of Israel's Law of Return, meant to encourage ethnic Russians to return to Russia to bolster the population. The law is cleverly worded so as not to seem too chauvinistic, allowing any former citizens of the USSR except "individuals representing the title nations of foreign countries," i.e. the vast majority of non-Russian citizens of the USSR.

Earlier in the day, Sadrudinov and I had visited a city fire station under construction. Even government projects rely on migrant workers, because it's so much cheaper. Other than a worker with a cavalier attitude to his circular saw, there weren't any obvious safety violations. But, like everything here, corners were being cut left and right. At this site, no one except for the foreman would talk with me, and he told me they were all registered. Uh, yeah.

The plight of Tajiks and other workers has obvious parallels with the immigration wars going on in the States. But while Mexicans no doubt live in some horrible conditions, at least they are emboldened enough to march for their rights. At least they have a chance. The Tajiks, on the other hand, are too scared to dare attract attention, too despised to ever earn Russians' sympathies, and too poor and beaten down to ever imagine that their situation could improve, or that anything could be better than the opportunity to earn 9 thousand dollars in three of the worst years imaginable.

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