Monday, December 1, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Migrant Worker Strike Frightens Russians, Could Trigger an Explosion

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 1 – Some 250 migrant workers from Tajikistan are in the sixth day of a strike in Yekaterinburg, the first such major job action by immigrants in the current economic crisis and one that not only raises the specter in the minds of many Russians of more such moves but could in the current environment easily lead to violent clashes.
Moscow media are playing up this regional story because many Russians believe that the economic crisis will lead migrant workers to turn to crime or violence in the event of economic problems and because the KPRF has said it wants to lead such protests and some Orthodox NGOs have said they are putting popular militias into the streets today to maintain order.
At the end of last week, 250 ethnic Tajik construction workers walked off the job at the Alfa-Story construction site because the company owed them 11 million rubles (400,000 US dollars). The company said it had not been paid, and prosecutors have not moved against it (,
The migrant laborers continue to blockade the construction sites, saying that they will remain in place until they are paid what they are owed on the basis of contracts that their leaders say they have signed. This last point is significant because it suggests that they behaved entirely legally and were not being employed outside the law.
Officials at the Federal Migration Service (FMS) told “Kommersant” that many companies are falling behind in paying their workers and especially migrant workers because the companies themselves have not been paid by those who have contracted to do so. And one FMS source added that the situation seems set to deteriorate in the coming days and weeks.
This labor action by migrants is more serious both symbolically and practically than that brief summary suggests. On the one hand, such actions so frighten many Russians that they are likely going to be more ready to listen to openly xenophobic groups like the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI) and insist on repressive moves against the migrants.
And on the other, other groups are prepared to exploit the situation on both sides. There are political parties like the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, some of whose leaders have already said they want to take the lead in defending these workers, and even a new Union of Labor Migrants, which has announced plans to take up the migrants’ cause.
Opposing them are popular militias (“druzhinniki”) which pledge to restore order. Several senior members of the Russian Orthodox Church have called for their formation precisely to defend Russia and Russian values, and the radical nationalist Union of Orthodox Russians said it would put the first such groups into the streets today.
One indication of just how dangerous the situation threatens to become was a statement by Andrey Vetluzhskikh, the head of the Sverdlovsk Trade Union Association. He told “Kommersant” that it cannot be “excluded that the action [of the Tajik workers] will become the start of mass actions” by migrants in other Russian cities and from other former Soviet republics.
If his prediction should prove true, there could easily be a spasm of violence first by one side and then by another followed by government efforts to repress both, a pattern that would leave Russian cities even more bitterly divided on ethnic and religious grounds than they are today and generate even more calls for an authoritarian regime to put the migrants in their place.
And consequently, what today looks like a small regional story now could quickly grow into a transforming event, especially if the mainstream media plays up the possibility of an immigrant “threat” and the regime responds not by defending the rights of the workers but rather by using force against them.

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