oDR: Feature

‘I can't feed my family’: Migrant workers in Russia hit hard by Ukraine war

With many Central Asian states reliant on cash sent back home from those working abroad in Russia, sanctions are having devastating effects

Kamila Eshaliyeva
6 April 2022, 12.00am
Migrant workers from Central Asia
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(c) Nikolay Vinokurov / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Daniyar’s working day starts at 5am. Every day, he delivers fresh bread to Moscow supermarkets. He gets up before sunrise, even on weekends and holidays.

“I get up at four. At five, I’m already at the warehouse. We have a defined route and we deliver the goods among retail outlets until midday. After 12, the shops don’t accept the bread. If you don’t have time to deliver everything, you can take it home,” he says.

Daniyar left Kyrgyzstan in October 2021. Finding a job in Russia was the best way for him to earn decent money and provide his family with a straightforward life. His wife and children are at home in Kyrgyzstan.

Payments from labour migrants in Russia have long served as a ‘lifeboat’ for Kyrgyzstan, saving the Central Asian state from plunging into extreme poverty. But with the Russian ruble losing its value and the imposition of Western sanctions over the country’s invasion of Ukraine, the fate of the more than one million Kyrgyzstanis who work in Russia, as well as that of their families, hangs in the balance.

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Working away from home, most of these people had already been forced to put up with low wages and difficult working and living conditions. Now, many have also been left without a stable income.

“Life has never been this hard”

“Household costs have grown a lot now, but there is no chance of our salaries being increased. When we raise this issue, we just hear this in response: ‘If you don’t like something here, finish the last two weeks and quit.’ This is regardless of whether the person is officially employed or not,” Daniyar says.

Kyrgyzstan is one of the most remittance-dependent countries in the world – meaning it relies heavily on money sent back home from those who travel abroad in search of work. In 2021, according to the National Bank of Kyrgyzstan, migrant workers outside the country transferred $2.75bn dollars to Kyrgyzstan – equal to more than a quarter of its GDP.

Now, the country’s economic outlook appears disappointing. According to the World Bank, one of the consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could be a reduction in remittances to post-Soviet countries. Kyrgyzstan is likely to face a drop in remittances by 33%, the World Bank says. Before the war, the institution’s experts had predicted an increase in remittance payments of more than 3% for 2022.

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Delivery apps are a popular source of work for migrant workers

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(c) Oleg Elkov / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Meanwhile, almost all types of goods have risen in price in Kyrgyzstan itself. The reason is the sharp rise in the dollar exchange rate: on the very first day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the dollar rate increased by 10 soms – from 85 to 95 soms to the dollar. In addition, many goods come to the republic either from or through Russia, where prices have also risen sharply.

“I earn about 150,000-160,000 rubles [£1,100-1,200] a month,” Daniyar says. “Of this, most of it goes to pay for housing, food and gasoline. As a result, I have around 70,000 rubles left. I send 50,000-60,000 to Kyrgyzstan. But due to unfavourable exchange rates and bank commissions, my family receives around 30% less than before. Life has never been this hard.”

Housing prices in Moscow, despite the difficult state of affairs, are still the same. Daniyar rents a two-room apartment with three other Kyrgyzstanis.

However, most often, migrants are forced to live in fairly spartan conditions in Russia: some people rent beds in a common room, the cost of which is about 6,000 rubles a month. On average, up to ten people will live in a single apartment; sometimes couples from Kyrgyzstan have to share a room with single men.

Economic downturn

Migrants often work jobs that local residents do not want: delivery services, taxi services, and in the construction, agriculture and service sectors.

But with signs of an economic downturn in Russia, restaurants and other services are closing.

“Many restaurants have closed. A lot of guys from Central Asia worked in these establishments: someone on delivery, someone as a cashier, someone in the kitchen. People began to leave: it doesn’t make sense financially to stay because of the exchange rate,” says Daniyar.

Among those who lost their jobs was Nurlan*, who worked a number of roles – at a factory, a construction site and a hairdressers’. Recently, Nurlan had been working as a courier delivering food from foreign-owned fast-food networks. After they were closed, Nurlan lost his source of income.

“Since I live in Moscow with my parents, the current situation has affected us as well,” he says. “First, my brother lost his job. Then he tried to find another, but could not get anywhere. Out of desperation, they sent him to Kyrgyzstan. Then, suddenly, I was left without a job. If this continues, then in a month I will buy a ticket and leave for my homeland.”

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(c) R.M. Nunes / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

According to Nurlan, due to the increase in prices for most goods, his family has to save money – there is only enough money for food and other essentials.

“Unemployment is rising in all sectors. Employers are now increasingly demanding Russian citizenship. And what about those who have a mortgage or a loan? After all, we came here to earn at least something,” Nurlan complains.

Another Kyrgyzstani, Anvar, came to Moscow in 2010. He works loading produce at one of the city’s markets. Prior to the invasion of Ukraine, he managed to send about 70,000 rubles a month to his relatives.

Transferring money home has recently become problematic. More than a third of the funds being sent to Kyrgyzstan came through the Western Union service, but since Russia invaded Ukraine, Western Union has stopped operating in Russia. Other services, such as Unistream, Zolotaya Korona and CONTACT, still operate.

“I used to send money in dollars, but now if you transfer in rubles, you only get pennies. It’s not an option. So we are waiting for the exchange rate to drop. I haven’t sent anything to my family for a month now. I tell them to be patient,” Anvar says.

Financial squeeze

For the most part, labour migrants in Russia are the only breadwinners for their relatives in Kyrgyzstan. Some support the day-to-day lives of their children and elderly parents, others save up for the medical treatment of a loved one, or repay a loan. But now it is difficult for migrants to feed themselves.

“Those who have a permanent job still survive somehow. Those who have financial problems have already begun to leave. Some are waiting for April, in case the situation will get better then,” says Anvar. “Of course, there are people who make less than 50,000 rubles a month. And they still need to pay rent, buy groceries, and do paperwork. Rather than work for that kind of money, it’s better to go to your family, to your homeland.”.

At the end of February, the number of potential labour migrants to Russia dropped significantly, but this did not last long, says Aiymzhan Imanalieva, a migration specialist with a project that works directly on migrants’ rights in Russia.

“After the start of the war, there was silence for a week. People were confused: they did not know whether to go to Russia or not. Now I’m starting to notice that 80% of people [who worked in Russia] are leaving, while the rest are still hesitating. Basically, those who are poorly versed in the situation go. Lack of money and unemployment force them to leave their families even in such a difficult time,” Imanalieva says.

However, not everyone realises what difficulties they will have to face. Many people choose the ‘easy’ way – to work outside Russia’s official labour law, and in return they encounter numerous violations of their rights by employers.

She points out that for local landlords who rent apartments to migrants, many refuse to register citizens of Central Asian states with the migration authorities – which means it’s hard for the latter to gain official employment status. Meanwhile, Russian employers are less willing to employ people who do not have Russian passports.

“The situation of migrants has been deteriorating since the beginning of the pandemic. Tough immigration raids are being carried out, the Russian police are checking people’s documents more often,” Imanalieva points out.

Mass return

While sanctions against Russia were aimed at the ruling or military elite, it is now ordinary people who are suffering. Migrant workers are the first to be hit, which has unforeseen consequences back home. While the prospect of a mass return of migrant workers in Russia to Central Asian states was once considered impossible, it’s become realistic, says anthropologist Aksana Ismailbekova, who believes it’s now only a matter of time.

“If we do see a mass return, then Central Asian governments will have to deal with high levels of youth unemployment, as well as poverty and instability,” says Ismailbekova.

However, the government of Kyrgyzstan has already stated openly that it is unable to create a million additional jobs to meet new demand. Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is working with South Korea and Turkey to simplify the migration regime so that Kyrgyzstanis can go to work in these countries instead of Russia. openDemocracy contacted Kyrgyzstan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comment, but did not receive a response.

“In order to keep people in Russia, businessmen are doing their best to fill the empty niche left by international companies,” Ismailbekova says.

“Now it is important to focus on diversifying Kyrgyzstan’s economic ties beyond Russia, and it’s even worth considering the possibility of withdrawing from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and the Eurasian Economic Union.”

“Some argue that there could be more focus on Kyrgyzstan’s domestic trade, especially the production of clothing for Russia. Others suggest importing fruits and vegetables [to Russia]. Then there are those that favour a system of greater economic integration of Central Asia.”

For Daniyar, he says he’s planning to continue working in Russia until the summer, when he will travel back home to visit family.

Whether Daniyar returns to Russia after, he says, “all depends on the situation.”

*Some names have been changed to protect the identity of individuals

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