Russia's foreign workers struggle


`Slaves': Lured by the promise of well-paying jobs, many men arrive in Moscow only to be cheated, injured and sometimes jailed.

April 03, 2005|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GRIPKI, Russia - This is the end of the road for some of Moscow's foreign workers, the Severny Detention Center, a four-story jail in a suburb of scruffy dachas and industrial plants.

Behind barred windows and locked behind 3-inch-thick doors languish about 450 inmates awaiting deportation. Many are economic refugees from Central Asia or Eastern Europe, lured by labor brokers with promises of wages 10 times what the workers could earn at home.

But they arrive at one of Moscow's major construction sites only to become virtual prisoners - stripped of their passports, on the job 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week, and locked up at night in dormitories or battered trailers on the site. Some of the immigrant workers are paid only part of their promised wages; some don't get paid at all.

"They are like slaves," said Svetlana Gannushkina, head of the Civic Assistance Committee in Moscow, an organization workers sometimes turn to when they're in trouble. "In fact, they are slaves. They have no rights."

Foreign workers are drawn here by the promise of jobs because Moscow, flush with oil money, is in the midst of a building boom unprecedented in its history.

Construction cranes punctuate the skyline, new malls seem to sprout every few months and clusters of gleaming towers are rising on the bulldozed sites of old factories. By 2015, the Moscow City government plans to build 200 high-rise buildings on 60 sites around the city - projects certain to attract still more foreign workers.

Workers who complain about safety issues or not being paid risk being arrested by police being paid by construction companies and handed over to the courts, where they may be ordered expelled from the country.

Those waiting to be sent home wind up at one of eight detention sites, including Severny Center, about an hour's drive north of central Moscow.

Sukhrov Shamirzayev, a 19-year-old from Uzbekistan, arrived in Russia early last year to work as a carpenter at an eight-story apartment building being erected southeast of the city center.

After hauling materials around the site for a month, he was picked up one morning by police as he and 10 co-workers waited for the bus to work. The arrest saved his employer the cost of his wages. "They promised me $300 to $350 a month," he said. "But they haven't paid me yet."

At the time he was interviewed, the teenager had spent more than eight months behind bars. His family in Uzbekistan knew nothing of what had happened to him. "I don't want to tell them," he said. "I don't want them to worry. I just don't know how long I will be here."

His cell, which he shared with six others, had a single bare bulb hanging from the ceiling and a toilet in one corner screened by a chest-high masonry wall. The metal-frame beds were neatly made with blue-striped pink blankets. A picture of Britney Spears hung above the cell door.

Once a week, inmates are let out of the cellblocks for an hour of exercise. They get one shower a week. There are no televisions or radios: No one here can afford them. The boredom drives some to distraction. Last year, about a dozen frustrated inmates took a guard hostage and escaped.

Under Russian law, detainees must be set free after a year. But once released, they risk immediate re-arrest if police stop them on the street for a document check.

Last year about 96,000 foreign workers were registered in Moscow - about one-tenth the number working illegally, according to Nikolai P. Azarov, deputy chief of inspection for the State Migration Service.

Azarov's 60 inspectors are supposed to enforce labor laws at the city's thousands of construction sites. But if an immigrant laborer is hired illegally, "it is easy for an employer to do whatever he wants with a person, to throw him out like a dog," he said.

Sergei Gerasimov, director of the Severny center, said the exploitation of workers already here hasn't discouraged new ones from arriving every day. "We can speak of a wave that swept over Moscow," he said.

Last year the migration service deported 4,886 illegal immigrants, Gerasimov said - "but that is just a drop in the sea."

Ali Shir Khakberdiyev, 19, of Tajikistan earned $450 a month as a painter for a contractor who demanded his passport for "safekeeping," he said. The young worker slept in a bunk bed in a small wooden trailer that he shared with nine other men, the trailer parked inside a fenced, locked construction site. In September, he sneaked out to buy cigarettes at a nearby store.

That's when a policeman arrested him. Khakberdiyev has been ordered expelled from Russia and is banned from returning for five years.

At Severny, he reads Russian newspapers, plays cards or backgammon, or does push-ups on the floor. "It's better than at the construction site," he said.

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