I Labour in times of uncertainty

The struggle for formal work: The everyday experiences of Russia’s Central Asian labour migrants

John Round and Irina Kuznetsova


Russia receives one of the highest numbers of labour migrants in the world— the majority coming from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan—and is the source of one of the largest total remittances, worth USS21 billion in 2018 (IOM 2020: 93). Estimates for the number of migrants working within the country vary dramatically, due to the chaotic nature of the country’s migration policy, ranging from three to five million. Given the increasing labour migration resulting from the global economic crisis, there is a renewed interest in the working experiences of migrants (see, for example, Potter and Hamilton 2014; Bloch and McKay 2016). Yet academic discussions on such issues in Russia are still developing (see Reeves 2013; Eastman 2013; Malakhov 2014; Urinboyev and Polese 2016; Urinboyev 2017). Through qualitative and participatory research, this chapter’s primary role is to reveal the immense difficulties that Central Asian migrants face in their working lives in Russia. In both political and media discourses, such migrants are commonly portrayed as ‘illegal’—despite the fact that the migrant body cannot be illegal—which renders them ostracised from many areas of society, and ‘fair game’ for exploitation by employers (Round and Kuznetsova 2016). As Williams et al. (2013) have shown, many ethnic Russians struggle to operate fully in the formal labour market, due to the actions of employers, and, as what follows demonstrates, the situation is even worse for labour migrants. Even those with genuine work permits or patents struggle to formalise their work practices, leaving them open to abuse, such as the withholding of their pay, a lack of safety regulations at work, extremely long working hours and/or highly unstable work.

Such discussions add much to global debates on the increasing precarity of work in the (post)crisis period (see Standing 2011), but the primary literature it engages with stems from the growing interest in the management and work literature on informal work (see, for example, Godfrey 2011; Webb et al. 2014; Ketchen et al. 2014 for its origins). Despite the truism that the informal economy, if taken broadly, rather than following the typical state definition of tax avoidance (for a full overview of this debate, see Siqueira et al. 2016), has operated for far longer than the formal, within these literatures there has been a ‘discovery’ of the informal, with subsequent calls for the setting of ‘research agendas’ (Ketchen et al. 2014). As discussed in more depth below, the majority of such literature sees informal practices as either a response to an overly bureaucratic state (see Kuehn 2014 for further discussion) or a stepping stone to formality as people try out new ideas without making the commitment of registration (Kus 2014).

However, there is a significant lacuna in the literature on the actions of employers who force their workforce into informality via a series of nefarious practices. Addressing this provides insight into the nature of Russia’s socio-economic development and suggests a recalibration of research agendas to consider in more detail the experiences of those working informally in labour markets across the world. After detailing the research methodologies below, this chapter is then situated within the literature on labour precarity and informality, noting the lack of work on employer-forced informality, before turning to empirical discussions. The latter are split into three sections: the first examines the governance of labour migration in Russia; the second reveals how this actually works in practice in order to erect barriers to formal work; and the third explores the lived realities of work for labour migrants. We conclude by arguing that, in the current situation, there is no incentive to improve the lives of migrants since the current stasis is extremely profitable to those with power.

This chapter draws upon in-depth interviews conducted in 2013 and 2014 with 300 labour migrants from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan working in the Russian cities of Kazan and Moscow. Despite some changes in the labour migration regulations including the creation of a single labour market within the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) recently, we argue, the embeddedness of informality into the migrants’ work experiences still remains highly topical. Whilst there are some differences in the experiences of the different groups in the two respective cities (for Moscow, see, for example, Round and Kuznetsova 2018), the space available precludes a full examination of them. Thus, here we concentrate more on their everyday work experiences. Whilst there are many younger migrants working in Russia, the experiences of older workers were also explored, and there was an equal split of interviewees between genders. Our sample consisted of an entire range of migrant statuses amongst the interviewees, but here we focus on those who were legally documented to work in Russia and struggled to formalise their practices. Interviewees were approached through existing contacts, through nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) working on migrant issues and, then, through the snowball method. We conducted interviews in Russian or, if the interviewee was not comfortable, with the assistance of a translator in the language of their choice. In many cases, the interviews were recorded and later transcribed, but, given the sensitive nature of the issues under discussion, some were unwilling to be recorded. In such instances, notes were made immediately after the interview concluded. ‘Elite’ interviews were also conducted with government officials, NGO workers and practitioners, upon which the section on Russia’s migration system is based. Both authors were in Russia for the duration of the research. The first author was a labour migrant working under the country’s highly qualified migration scheme. Whilst his experience

The struggle for formal work 21 is quantifiably different from that of Central Asian migrants, it provided many insights into the country’s stifling bureaucracy that surrounds migration and work.

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