Dreams of gold turn to dust in Moscow crisis
During the economic boom, migrant workers flocked to Russia by the thousands, helping the country build its glitzy business centres and housing developments. Now, they are the first ones to suffer.Rustam Nargyziev left his native Tajikistan for Russia, dreaming of making easy money to sustain his family back home in a modern day gold rush of frenetic construction in 21st-century Moscow.
For two years, his prospecting found its rewards as the 25-year-old worked at one construction site after another in a Russian capital that was witnessing an unprecedented building boom.
Although his jobs have always been on the black market, he never had to deal with contractors who did not pay him for his work.
But Rustam has been out of work since the economic crisis unleashed a whirlwind of havoc among the half-built shiny business centres and glitzy housing developments sprouting up throughout central Moscow.
The now-unemployed construction foreman has had to repeatedly beg his former employer to pay him the wages he is owed for his last four months of work.
Since October, he and 27 members of crew hired to plaster the walls of a large parking deck have not received a single ruble. The gates of the construction site have been padlocked.
The contractor "owes a million rubles (22,000 euros) to the 27 men who have worked here for two months,” said Rustam. “We haven't received a kopek and we were simply driven out of here."
He now dreams of only one thing – "returning home."
For its part, the contractor has told the workers it cannot pay, since the developer of the project has gone bankrupt.
Rustam, who is now staying with friends, travelled day after day to the construction site to convince the contractor, MIK-2007, to pay the wages of his men. Without work, his debts have mounted to around 1,000 euros.
"I'm not treating you like an asshole!” said Ivan Vassilevich, the deputy director of MIK-2007, speaking to his former employee as they stood at the snow-covered site. “I told you that you will be paid when the client pays us!"
Migrants bear the brunt
Rustam and his plastering crew are not the only ones suffering.
The economic crisis has led to the halting of construction work on sites across Moscow and the rest of Russia, forcing the unemployment of tens of thousands of migrants from the poorest countries of the former USSR.
According to a report the mayor of Moscow issued last December, the Russian capital in 2008 had two million foreign workers, 90 percent of which were illegal.
Since autumn, when the financial crisis began to hit Russia, organisations monitoring immigrant workers have noted a skyrocketing number of delayed or cancelled payments, a situation against which migrant workers are powerless.
"In December 2007, there were seven complaints against debtors,” said Gauhar Dzhuraieva, the president of the Law and Migration Association. “In December 2008 ... there were 48 cases. This is very strong growth."
Meanwhile, the Association of Tadjik Migrant Workers reported receiving over 6,000 calls for assistance this past December, while it recorded only about 1,800 such calls over the same period in 2007.
Fight or flight?
Migrant labourers are now faced with a difficult choice – pile up debts and remain in Russia with slim chance of finding work or deprive their families of income by returning to countries where they live in poverty.
"There are five children in our family,” said Argen Abditalipov, an 18-year-old Kyrgyz man who has not been paid since December but who nonetheless does not want to leave. “I am the oldest. There, in Kyrgyzstan, there is no work and when there is, the salary is very low."
Russian authorities do not seem to be willing to help the very people who have manned the building boom and put their skyscrapers into the sky let alone fight the abuse they face.
Instead, they warn the Russian public to beware of crimes committed by foreigners. At the same time, immigrants have become the repeated targets of racist attacks – the most gruesome of which happened in December, when a racist group decapitated a Tajik labourer just outside of Moscow.
"Objectively, we expect an increase in crimes that could be committed by migrant workers," Deputy Interior Minister Mikhail Sukhodolsky said. "When a person is without means of sustenance ... some choose the path of crime."
Sukhodolsky also called on the Russian police "to be more vigilant."
Head photo credit: Moscow International Business Centre. Model of new commercial district of central Moscow in offices of Urban Planning Department, Moscow City Government. By Addictive Picasso