Migrant workers in Russia

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A migrant worker cutting grass alongside the Moscow Ring Road, 2017

Migrant workers in Russia, commonly referred to as Gastarbeiters (Russian: Гастарбайтеры, romanizedGastarbaytery), form a significant part of Russia's workforce since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Comprising as much as 25% of the workforce, the majority of migrant workers come from Central Asia and the South Caucasus, and often work in low-level jobs.


The Soviet Union began to employ migrant labourers in the early 1970s, primarily taking in workers from Vietnam. By 1983, numbers had reached as many as 365,000, equal to 0.25% of the total workforce at the time. At the time, migrant labourers were both a means of doing work that Soviet workers were unwilling to do as well as assisting economic relations between the Soviet Union and other communist states, with remittances paying off import costs and debt owed to the Soviet Union. In spite of this, the United States Central Intelligence Agency noted that migrant labour failed to resolve the Soviet Union's general labour shortage.[1]

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, economic and living conditions largely declined throughout the countries of the former Soviet Union. As among the least-affected, Russia began to take in large amounts of migrant labourers from fellow ex-Soviet states in the early 1990s, with President Boris Yeltsin signing a decree to prevent their exploitation. At that time, migrant workers were largely from Ukraine and Belarus.[2] From 1995 to 2000 more than half of all migrant labourers came from outside the former Soviet Union, primarily from China, Turkey, and former Yugoslavia.

Numbers of Central Asian and Transcaucasian migrants remained low until the late 1990s, and, as the Russian economy continued to improve in the early 2000s, increased labour demanded resulted in a newfound rise in labour migration, primarily from post-Soviet Central Asia and the South Caucasus.[3] By 2010, Russia had become the second-largest recipient of migrant labour of any country in the world, behind only the United States.[4]

Estimates of the percentage of migrant labourers within the workforce vary significantly. Some estimates go as low as 8%, while others reach as high as 25%.[5]

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has resulted in a significant exodus of migrant workers from Russia to their home countries, owing to international sanctions imposed in response to the invasion. This has resulted in negative repercussions on remittance-dependent economies as a result of Russian economic declines, and, coupled with low unemployment, resulted in a shortage of between 3.6 and 4.8 million labourers in 2023.[6] There have also been several instances of migrant labourers being conscripted to serve in the Russian Armed Forces, and workers have been among the main targets of Russian conscription campaigns in spite of Central Asian governments warning their citizens that they would be subject to criminal prosecution if they participated in the war.[7] Russian lawmaker Pyotr Tolstoy also proposed a tax on remittances and a ban on migrant labourers from serving in certain jobs, in what sparked backlash from Uzbek lawmakers.[8]


A migrant labourer centre in Troitsky Administrative Okrug, Moscow

Conditions for migrant labourers have been described as poor by news reports and human rights organisations alike, with Human Rights Watch saying that "large numbers of these workers are subjected to abuse and exploitation by employers, employment agencies, and other intermediaries, and are victims of extortion and abuse by police and other officials."[9] Migrant workers have few protections and are often left uninformed of their rights. As a result of scarce information in countries of origin, human trafficking and forced labour of migrants is common,[10] and employers have been reported on some occasions as withholding labourers' passports to prevent them from leaving.[9]

Female migrant labourers have faced particular issues, including lower levels of employment and earnings compared to both male migrant workers and Russian female workers. According to a 1998 study, monthly wages were 30% lower than local women and worked fewer hours than local women. As a result of these differences, it would take a female migrant labourer between 14 and 17 years to reach parity with local women. Assimilation of women into the labour market has also been slow compared to their male counterparts.[11]

Economic impact[edit]

Migrant labourers significantly impact the economy of both Russia and their countries of origin; remittances form large parts of the gross domestic product of Armenia, Georgia, and Tajikistan,[10] while adding 386 billion rubles to the Russian state budget between 2015 and 2021.[12] According to Vladimir Volokh, a professor at the State University of Management, migrant labour forms as much as 7-8% of Russia's annual GDP.[13] Countries of origin are even more significantly impacted; the National Bank of Kyrgyzstan reported in 2021 that $2.75 billion, more than a quarter of the country's GDP, came from remittances.[14]

In politics[edit]

During the 1990s Russian state policy towards migrant labourers was largely conciliatory, with laws being passed in 1994 and 1995 to allow simplified citizenship procedures for migrants from the former Soviet Union. Since 2000, however, laws have increasingly restricted criteria for citizenship along ethnic lines, and politicians and Russian media have engaged in nativist rhetoric against migrant labourers.[15] Russia has used migrant labourers as a political tool, such as during the 2006 deportation of Georgians from Russia, when Georgian migrant workers (whose remittances made up at least 15% of the Georgian economy in the first half of 2006) were deported from Russia and sent back to Georgia,[16] in a move condemned by Human Rights Watch.[17]

Russian officials have claimed the existence of links between labour migration and Jihadist groups, with director of the Federal Security Service Alexander Bortnikov saying that there were terrorist groups among migrant labourers following the 2017 Saint Petersburg Metro bombing.[18] Migrant workers have also been arrested on occasion and accused of association with Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic fundamentalist group which is banned in Russia.[19]

Societal attitudes[edit]

Societal attitudes towards migrant workers in Russia are largely negative. According to 2021 polling by the Levada Center, 68% of Russians believe that the government should take measures to reduce migrant labour, with another 11% favouring measures to increase migrant labour. This is a decrease from 2020 polling, where 73% of individuals supported reducing migrant labour. 50%[a] of those polled by the Levada Center believe that work done by migrant labourers is good for Russia and society, while 45%[b] believe it is negative.[20]

Violent crimes and homicides against migrant labourers are widespread, particularly in southern Russia and by neo-Nazis. In a 2008 report by NPR, labourers reported working as "slaves" and were described by the report as forming a "segregated, second class of residents". The Russian government has cast blame for the crimes on illegal immigration, with one proposal from the Moscow municipal government arguing in favour of building separate living quarters for migrants.[21]


  1. ^ 15% "definitely yes", 35% "probably yes".
  2. ^ 26% "probably no", 19% "definitely no".


  1. ^ "Foreign Labor in the USSR" (PDF). Central Intelligence Agency. pp. 3–4. Retrieved 5 February 2024.
  2. ^ Hiatt, Fred (1 February 1994). "For some, Russia still a workers' paradise". Washington Post. Retrieved 5 February 2024.
  3. ^ Chudinovskikh, Oleg; Denisenko, Mikhail (18 May 2017). "Russia: A Migration System with Soviet Roots". Migration Policy Institute. Retrieved 5 February 2024.
  4. ^ Heusala, Anna-Liisa; Aitamurto, Kaarina (2017). "Between exploitation and expulsion: Labour migration, shadow economy and organised crime". Migrant Workers in Russia. Taylor & Francis. p. 94. ISBN 9781317328018.
  5. ^ Heusala, Anna-Liisa; Aitamurto, Kaarina (2017). Migrant Workers in Russia. Taylor & Francis. p. 5. ISBN 9781317328018.
  6. ^ Galeotti, Mark (10 January 2024). "Putin's migrant headache". The Spectator. Retrieved 5 February 2024.
  7. ^ "Migrants Reportedly Being Forced To Sign Contracts With Defense Ministry To Obtain Russian Citizenship". Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. 28 August 2023. Retrieved 5 February 2024.
  8. ^ Rickleton, Chris (28 November 2023). "Migrants In Russia Face Raids, Political Attacks As Pressure To Fight In Ukraine Increases". Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Retrieved 5 February 2024.
  9. ^ a b ""Are You Happy to Cheat Us?"". Human Rights Watch. 10 February 2009. Retrieved 5 February 2024.
  10. ^ a b "Labour migration (Eastern Europe and Central Asia)". International Labour Organization. Retrieved 5 February 2024.
  11. ^ Lazareva, Olga (28 October 2015). "Russian migrants to Russia: assimilation and local labor market effects". IZA Journal of Migration. 4 (20) – via Springer.
  12. ^ Zhunussova, Darina (20 September 2023). "Why Central Asian Labor Migrants Keep Coming to Russia Post-War". Georgetown University. Retrieved 5 February 2024.
  13. ^ "На просторах России" [In the vastness of Russia]. Demoscope Weekly (in Russian). Retrieved 5 February 2024.
  14. ^ Eshalieva, Kamila (6 April 2022). "'I can't feed my family': Migrant workers in Russia hit hard by Ukraine war". openDemocracy. Retrieved 5 February 2024.
  15. ^ Heusala, Anna-Liisa; Aitamurto, Kaarina (2017). "Migration policies in Russia: Laws and debates". Migrant Workers in Russia. Taylor & Francis. pp. 16–19. ISBN 9781317328018.
  16. ^ "Georgia: Hundreds Left Stranded After Deportations From Russia". Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. 17 October 2006. Retrieved 5 February 2024.
  17. ^ "Singled Out: Russia's Detention and Expulsion of Georgians: Summary". Human Rights Watch. October 2007. Retrieved 5 February 2024.
  18. ^ "Глава ФСБ назвал трудовых мигрантов из СНГ костяком групп террористов". RBK Group (in Russian). 11 April 2017. Retrieved 5 February 2024.
  19. ^ "В Москве задержан главарь ячейки террористической организации "Хизб ут-Тахрир"" [Terrorist Hizb ut-Tahrir organisation cell leaders arrested in Moscow]. Vesti.ru (in Russian). 22 October 2015. Retrieved 5 February 2024.
  20. ^ "Xenophobia and Migrants". Levada Center. 28 January 2022. Retrieved 5 February 2024.
  21. ^ Feifer, Gregory (29 July 2008). "In Russia, Migrant Workers Live In Fear Of Racism". NPR. Retrieved 5 February 2024.