Russia's labour migrants caught between poverty and pandemic

On March 18, the lives of hundreds of thousands of migrants across Russia were turned upside down. That day, the country closed its borders with the outside world in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Right until the beginning of April, the embassies of Central Asian states chartered flights to evacuate their citizens from Russia. Nevertheless, most Central Asian migrants have remained in the country — albeit without jobs and without livelihoods.

by Ekaterina Ivashchenko

Forty-four year old Madina Mamajanova from Khujand is one of them. She is the sole provider for her two children, who live with her parents in her home country of Tajikistan. Madina has worked in Russia since 1999; March 18 was her last day on the job as a chef in a Moscow restaurant. Having sent all her money home to her family, Madina now faces a tough situation: she has no money left to pay her rent, but cannot more work. In February, she sent her daughter back to Tajikistan to live with her parents. She's relieved to have done so; in a crisis situation it's easier to survive alone.

'At the end of March, I received my last paycheque for 12 shifts. But a third — 9,500 rubles (€120) — was deducted from all the chefs' wages for allegedly spoiling the products,' Madina says. 'My landlord didn't reduce the rent, but just deferred payment for a month. I'm running out of money; I'm ready to work as a cleaner or to look after the sick, but I can't find anything.'

'I'm not asking the authorities for money or for handouts. Just give me work, so that I have something to live on and some way of supporting my parents,' Madina exclaims.

It's important to remember that Central Asian migrants faced xenophobia and discrimination in Russia long before COVID-19 arrived on the scene. But the border closures and quarantine restrictions have exacerbated their already precarious situation, leaving many unemployed, unprotected, and without any choice as to where to wait out the pandemic.

screen shot 05 19 20 at 06.50 pmUzbek migrant workers without work in Moscow hostel. Photo: Federation of migrant workers in Russia 

No job, no income

According to data from December 2019, there are over 1.6 million migrants living in Moscow, mostly from the five post-Soviet republics of Central Asia. They mostly work in the service sector, housing and communal services or on construction sites. These sectors of the economy were those most hard hit by the self-isolation regime which was introduced in Moscow on March 30. Nevertheless, dismissals of migrant workers from these jobs began earlier, in mid-March.

Those left without work were unable to pay for their employment permits. These documents are required of all foreign citizens with visa-free access to Russia. In Moscow, a monthly payment comes to 5,350 rubles (€67) — a large sum to an unemployed person.

On April 18, Putin passed a decree exempting migrants from payments for their work permits from March 15 to July 15. The validity of temporary residence permits and migration cards have been extended for the same period. Migrant workers breathed a sigh of relief.

Lawyer Zarnigor Omonillayeva says that at first, migrants encountered no problems. They paid their rents from March's wages and cancelled their monthly payments for work permits. But by the end of April, they had started to run out of money and appealed to human rights activists for help.

Ten men in two rooms

The 38-year-old Akhliyor Sultanov from the town of Konibodom, Tajikistan, was caught by the lockdown and had to remain in Moscow. Since 2001, Sultanov has regularly travelled to Russia and back for short-term jobs.

'I've done all kinds of work. I've worked as a plumber and an electrician, and on the construction of the metro. The last place I worked was the building site of business park Moscow City, where I installed the wiring. I worked throughout March, and in April we were told to take a break for a week. But it's been four weeks now. I received my last paycheque on April 13; that was the day hundreds of migrants like me, who worked on construction sites, lost their jobs,' says Akhliyor.

Akhliyor shares a two-room apartment with nine other men. Each of them pays 5,000 rubles (€63) for a bed. All of them are now out of work.

'Nobody knows what will happen next. I'm now living on credit. Friends in other cities across Russia are sending me money; the job market is better in some places than others. Some of the guys I live with have no money at all; we break bread together. It's good that we at least have internet, so we have some way to entertain ourselves. We've seen people who are worse off, so we're trying to help them out.’

Risk of spreading corona

Renat Karimov, chairman of the Union of Migrant Workers, says that Russia's labour migrants live in crowded accommodation, which hypothetically risks spreading the coronavirus.

'The danger isn't to migrants who rent their own accommodation — they live two or three to a room, and anybody who becomes sick can isolate themselves. The danger is to those in dormitories, huge shared rooms filled with bunk beds. If one person gets sick in a place like that, a large number of people could be infected with the virus,' explains Karimov.

karimovRenat Karimov: 'If one person gets sick in a dormitory, a large number og people could be infected'. Photo copyright free

'These people simply don't have any money left, since they are now facing a second month without the opportunity to earn a living. Obviously, in a situation like that they will be tempted to violate the self-isolation regime in search of work,' says Batyrjon Shermukhammad, a lawyer and founder of the Migrant portal, which offers news and legal advice to migrant workers in Russia.

The first positive coronavirus cases among Russia's labour migrants began to be recorded in early April. At the time, human rights defenders and the embassies of Central Asian countries were receiving hundreds of calls every day. Once human rights activists and diplomats realised that panic was widespread and growing among migrants, they came together to provide qualified assistance. This led to the creation of the Council for Assistance to Migrants in early April.

The council performs several functions: it provides counselling and psychological assistance, helps call an ambulance, and provides food and medicines for migrants living in apartments and hostels. Its hotline is available in Russian, Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Uzbek.

Medical assistance

On April 30, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin declared that migrants are not denied medical assistance if they need it. It appears that while migrants really are treated for free in Moscow's hospitals, reaching them still requires a great deal of effort on their part.

'It's very hard to get an ambulance or get tested for the coronavirus,' says Omonillayeva, who is contacted every day by migrants facing these problems. 'Despite the pandemic, the self-isolation regime, and claims that as many tests as possible need to be available to people with suspected coronavirus infections, migrants are denied testing,' says the lawyer. According to her, the grounds for refusal can be that migrants lack a proper insurance policy, that they have reached out to a clinic in a district where they are not registered residents, or that they do not have identity documents.

'During a pandemic, this is completely irrational,' stresses Omonillayeva. She urges the Russian authorities to stop discriminating against migrants when it comes to access to medicine and healthcare during a worldwide health emergency.

Competition for jobs 

The chairman of the Union of Migrant Workers Renat Karimov expects that when the quarantine measures are finally lifted, not only Central Asian migrants will lose their jobs — many Russians will, too.

'Many small businesses have closed down, which will lead people to look for work in sectors where they haven't before,' predicts Karimov. 'As a result, competition will intensify and many migrants could be left without work. This can already be seen among couriers, where there is already so much competition that their salaries have fallen several times.'

There is still no clarity about when it will be possible for Russia to go back to work again. Lawyer Batyrjon Shermukhammad says that this fact, alongside their fear of contracting the coronavirus, makes many migrants want to leave Russia as soon as they can.

However, many  labour migrants have a more mixed attitude about what awaits them if they return to their countries of origin. They understand that even if they manage to return, they will be quarantined for two weeks upon arrival — a requirement in all countries in Central Asia. Meanwhile, the real public health situation in the region is far from clear. This is especially true in Tajikistan, where the authorities only acknowledged coronavirus cases in the country on April 29 — before that, they claimed, people had been dying of pneumonia. Nevertheless, the main reason for migrants' reluctance to leave Russia is the hope that they will soon be able to return to work.


Labour migrants such as Akhliyor and Madina are the backbone of Moscow's economy. In recent years, the fees migrants pay for work permits has provided significant sums for the capital's coffers.

It’s why Karimov hopes that the migrants will be supported. 'Putin promised that those who have lost their jobs will be able to receive payments of up to 12,130 rubles (€152) from the employment service. We asked the Ministry of Labour to clarify whether this also applies to migrants, but so far we have not received a response. That would be the correct measure, even if it only applied to legally registered migrants rather than all migrants in the country. In general, the more migrants there are who have some money, the easier it will be for the migrant community to survive this crisis, given its networks of mutual support. If just one person who shares an apartment with four others were to receive such a payment, he would use it to feed all his flatmates.'

Translated from the Russian by Maxim Edwards

This article was originally published on

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