End Employer Exploitation, Forced Labor, Climate of Violence
February 10, 2009
Migrant construction workers come to Russia for decent jobs and instead find violence and exploitation. Russia should undertake rigorous reforms to protect migrant construction workers from these serious human rights abuses.
Jane Buchanan, researcher in the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch and author of the report

(Moscow) - Migrant construction workers in Russia face widespread abuse both in and outside of the workplace, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. In a climate of rising hate-motivated violence against migrants, exacerbated by the global financial crisis, the Russian government is failing to protect these workers from abusive employers, employment agencies, and police. 

The 130-page report, "‘Are you Happy to Cheat Us?' Exploitation of Migrant Construction Workers in Russia," documents widespread withholding of wages, failure to provide required contracts, and unsafe working conditions by employers at construction sites across Russia. It also details cases in which workers were unwittingly trafficked into forced labor by employment agencies that promised construction jobs in Russia, but then delivered workers to employers who confiscated their passports and forced them to work without wages. In some cases, these workers were confined and beaten.

"Migrant construction workers come to Russia for decent jobs and instead find violence and exploitation," said Jane Buchanan, researcher in the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch and author of the report. "Russia should undertake rigorous reforms to protect migrant construction workers from these serious human rights abuses."

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 140 migrant construction workers who have worked in 49 Russian cities and towns from 2006 to 2008.

More than 40 percent of Russia's 4 million to 9 million migrant workers are employed in construction, which prior to the global economic crisis had been one of the major engines of Russia's growth. Most migrant workers come from other countries of the former Soviet Union, looking to escape poverty and unemployment. Citizens of most of those countries can enter Russia without a visa.

The report documents exploitation and abuse at a time of Russia's phenomenal economic growth. With the Russian economy suffering the impacts of the global financial crisis, migrant workers face an increased risk of exploitation and violence, Human Rights Watch said.

"Without urgent action by the Russian government, migrant construction workers will be doubly vulnerable to abuse, both by employers and by others looking to scapegoat migrants for the country's economic problems," Buchanan said.

Human Rights Watch said that almost none of the workers interviewed had been given contracts, as required by Russian law. The lack of a contract makes workers vulnerable to wage and other abuses and limits their opportunities to seek assistance from official bodies in cases of abuse. Employers routinely withhold wages from workers, make unexpected and illegal deductions in wages, or refuse to pay wages altogether. Workers who refuse to work in protest over unpaid wages may face violence and threats by their employers.

"This kind of exploitation is so pervasive that workers often labor for months, waiting and hoping to be paid," said Buchanan. "They recognize that their chances for decent, reliable pay won't be much better with another employer."

Police regularly target ethnic minorities, including migrant workers, for petty extortion during spot document inspections on the street. Migrant workers told Human Rights Watch that sometimes, during these inspections, police also beat or humiliated them. In some egregious cases, police required migrant workers to perform forced labor at police stations or other locations.

"Sadly, violence seems to be a fact of life for many migrant workers in Russia," said Buchanan. "Whether it's employers trying to intimidate their workers, police roughing them up during a shake-down, or hate-motivated attacks by regular citizens, Russia's migrant workers are vulnerable at almost every turn."

Russia has revised its migration laws in recent years to make it easier for workers who can enter Russia without a visa to legalize their stay and employment. The steps, while positive, do not go far enough to protect migrant workers from abuse.

"Russia has an obligation under international law to protect all victims of abuse, irrespective of the victim's migration status or contractual status," said Buchanan. "It's time for the government to stop acting as if migrant workers don't have rights and take decisive action against abusive employers and employment agencies."

Human Rights Watch called on the government to ensure rigorous labor inspections, prosecution of abusive employers, and effective regulation of employment agencies. It should also develop accessible complaint mechanisms for victims and timely and effective investigations into allegations of abuse. In addition, further reform in migration law is necessary to allow workers to more easily regularize their stay, making them less vulnerable to abuse and more likely to seek protection from state agencies.

Human Rights Watch also called on the home countries of migrant workers in Russia to provide more help when their citizens face abuse in Russia, to cooperate with Russian authorities on investigations and prosecutions of abusive employers in Russia, and to establish clear and rigorous regulations for employment agencies that recruit in their countries.