Prices for basic staples have risen sharply, depressing the value of the remittances being sent home from Russia
Tajik labor migrants in Russia are trapped in a vicious circle.
The value of their ruble salaries is depreciating. The pressure of Russian bureaucracy is mounting. And there is little decent employment to be found in Tajikistan – so returning home is no option.
Idigul, 28, lives in Romit, a village in the hills around 50 kilometers from Dushanbe. From when she got married, her husband was already earning his living as a seasonal laborer.
“In our village, all the men earn money in Russia, at construction sites, as janitors, and, although very rarely, as taxi drivers. So when I was courted by a man earning extra money by being a migrant laborer, there was nothing surprising or negative about it for me,” she told Eurasianet.
Her husband, Saidbek, 30, has a degree from the Shirinsho Shotemur Agrarian University in Dushanbe. Such educational qualifications all too often cannot be put to use for well-paid jobs, however.
The family routine is now established. Around May, Saidbek leaves for Moscow to work on construction sites. He accepts jobs on upper floors of buildings under construction, which comes with the added bonus of hazard wages. To save money, he sleeps on the site. What he manages to put aside, he sends home to his wife and three children. Around November, he returns to Tajikistan. Idigul said that last time around, he managed to amass savings of around $5,000 – a princely sum by the standards of most Tajik expat workers.
“Of this amount, my husband put aside around $1,000 for the next trip, to pay for tickets and paperwork. We use the rest to live on for the remaining six months,” she said.
But as Idigul told Eurasianet, this is becoming an ever-more unsustainable arrangement.
“Working in Russia has never been easy, but now it has become painful and unprofitable,” she said.
Hard data is lacking. Tajikistan stopped producing figures on how much money was being sent home by expat laborers about a decade ago. Russia’s Central Bank ceased publishing its data on international money transfers around the time the large-scale invasion of Ukraine began.
It is easier to track currencies. If 1,000 Russian rubles bought 150 Tajik somoni in February 2022, the month that the war in Ukraine began, the same amount now trades for closer to 120 somoni.
In the meantime, somoni-indexed prices for basic staples are getting costlier. According to UN calculations, the cost for some essential goods has increased by half over the past year.
By Eurasianet’s own assessment, the cost of rice at Dushanbe bazaars has increased by around 40 percent over that same period. Sugar has risen by one-third in price. Similar spikes have occurred with potatoes and milk.
Guljahon, 42, lives in Dushanbe and is, like many Tajik mothers, also dependent on remittances for her basic needs. The currency depreciation and inflation double-whammy has led her to tighten the belt considerably.
“This year we have practically had to forgo vegetables, fruit and dairy goods. If we lived somewhere outside the city, then we could perhaps keep a cow and plant some vegetables and fruit trees. That would ease the burden. Everything is so expensive this year,” she told Eurasianet.
Guljahon’s husband is on a modest salary at his construction job in Russia, which makes the pressure only greater.
“My husband works at a construction site, but on the lower floors, his [monthly] salary is about 50,000 rubles (around $540 at the current rate). After all his expenses – accommodation, food, paperwork – he sends me up to 20,000 rubles. That is only enough to cover essential groceries, housing fees and utilities, and the children’s school expenses. My husband and I buy clothes once every two or three years,” Guljahon said.
This hardship is mounting in parallel with a harshening of official attitudes in Russia toward Tajik migrants in particular. Aspiring laborers must, if they wish to receive authorization to work legally, undergo fingerprinting and a medical examination, and pass a test for proficiency in the Russian language, knowledge of the history of Russia and some basics about Russian legislation. They must also obtain medical insurance and register their place of residence. All these procedures can set back applicants about 30,000 rubles, and even after all that, a work permit is not guaranteed.
The general mood is darkening.
Arbitrary deportations remain the order of the day.
Russian social media is awash with scare stories of ethnic minorities – sometimes from within Russia itself – allegedly behaving themselves inappropriately toward women and children. Tajik nationals can find themselves being deported just for practicing sport on playing fields reserved for children.
The number of media reports about police raids on places frequented by migrant laborers – apartments, workplaces, canteens and the like – suggest these are becoming more common. Video footage routinely surfaces online showing detained migrants being subjected to degrading behavior.
The war in Ukraine has added another element of hazard to these raids. People found to also be holders of Russian citizenship – as growing numbers of Tajiks are – are liable to be mobilized by the armed forces and sent to the front.
Zainiddin, a Tajik who has been working as a taxi driver in St. Petersburg, told Eurasianet that he was recently caught up in a sweep by traffic inspectors and Federal Migration Service officers. He is now awaiting deportation.
“When they took me down to the precinct, I was offered a military contract. I refused and started to try and prove to them that everything was in order with my documents, that they detained me illegally. They charged me with refusing to obey police instructions and insulting them and put me down for deportation,” said Zainiddin.
To add insult to injury, the cost of repatriation is borne by the deportee. Zainiddin said that until his relatives manage to gather the funds, he will be kept in a temporary detention center.
“At the center, we constantly have problems. They beat us under the pretext of having disrespected the police. There is no access to clean water, to food. There are always reasons to humiliate and oppress us. Some cannot withstand it and agree to go to war,” he told Eurasianet.
Guljakhon told Eurasianet that despite tales like these, Tajik migrants accept that Russia remains their only option.
“Russians constantly say that they are feeding Tajiks, and migrants in general. But migrants don’t just pick money from trees. They work, and in difficult conditions,” she said. “But what can you do? Even if you get a meager salary there, it’s better than nothing at all. Nobody is waiting for migrants back in the homeland.”