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A Leftist Response to the Immigration Question

Russian Marxists do not often raise the issue of immigration. When the latest explosion of anti-immigrant passions puts the issue on the national agenda, leftists as a rule limit themselves to general declarations in the spirit of internationalism and humanism. However, a simple refutation of xenophobic myths or stating the obvious truth that the problems associated with immigration are the product of capitalism is not enough to counter nationalist propaganda and prejudices. A program is needed that would oppose both right-wing and neoliberal “solutions” to the issue of immigration.

Divide and Conquer: Xenophobia and Labor Market Dumping

The encouragement of xenophobia amongst workers is one of the oldest and most effective strategies employed by the oppressors. How it works is easily shown by a simple example from trade union practice. A South Korean corporation that produces automotive parts built a plant in a depressed area of Russia beset by chaos and unemployment. Faced with hyper-exploitation, the violation of elementary labor rights, and the boorish attitude of their foreign and Russian managers, the workers at the plant decided to organize a trade union. Using intimidation and repressive tactics, company management squashed this attempt at self-organization, thus reducing the number of trade union members to an isolated handful of activists. However, one of the main deterrents was the threat of mass layoffs and the hiring of “guest workers.”

Not content with verbal threats, plant management set about putting them into practice. Within several months, the number of immigrant workers from Central Asia at the plant had increased several times, while the hiring of local residents was practically curtailed. Hostility towards the newcomers began to mount both among the plant’s workers and in the surrounding community.

The roots of this resentment are understandable. Local workers perceive “guest workers” as unwanted competitors on the labor market. Wholly dependent on their employers and the government officials in their pockets, the immigrants are willing to work for lower pay, to slave away from dawn to dusk, on weekends and holidays. The unpretentiousness of these people from Central Asia, where the elimination of large farms and de-industrialization have led to truly appalling poverty, makes them ideal targets for exploitation.

Sensing their social superiority to these “Ravshans” and “Jamshuts” [translator’s note –Ravshan and Jamshut are immigrant-worker characters on the Russian TV satire program “Our Russia”], the locals likewise sense the total fragility of this superiority. And since the fear of job loss, the absence of successful experience in organizing collective actions, and a lack of confidence in their own strength prevent them from speaking out against their employer, their anger is directed against people who are even more downtrodden and powerless.Other – cultural – factors complicate this picture even further. Thus, the unsanitary conditions in which the immigrants often dwell (which are partly the fault of their employers, and partly due to habits imported from their homelands) often cause revulsion against them on the part of Russians. For example, at the plant we have just been discussing, local workers have demanded separate tableware for immigrants who eat in the factory canteen, for fear of contracting hepatitis and other serious illnesses. Their irritation is also aroused by the poor qualifications of the newcomers – everyone pays for substandard work and delays in meeting quotas. The language barrier, as well as the social isolation of “guest workers” from locals, also does not contribute to rapprochement between the two groups.

Is Solidarity Possible?

The classic leftist response to the challenges posed by immigrant labor is to declare that local workers and immigrants should battle exploitation side by side, demanding equal rights, pay, and work conditions. This approach is fundamentally sound. As long as the demand for a cheap, disempowered labor force is maintained, no police measures, no quotas on the recruitment of foreign labor (which merely increase the share of illegal workers), and, of course, no nationalist terror can stop the slave trade. On the contrary, the more downtrodden and isolated from the rest of society foreigners are, the more profitable is their labor for Russian and transnational capital.

However, the simple desire for solidarity amongst workers regardless of their country of origin is clearly insufficient in order to make this solidarity a reality. There are many formidable obstacles – both objective and subjective – on the path to self-organization and protest on the part of immigrant workers, and to their recruitment into the labor movement. The first such obstacle is the weakness of militant trade unions in our country, which still have not managed to permeate any notable strata of relatively high-paid and skilled workers at modern manufacturing facilities. Much more vulnerable categories of workers – employees at failing enterprises, service industry workers, temporary workers, and immigrants – will probably be able to join the organized movement only after the more advanced strata of the working class show them successful examples of militancy and acquire enough strength to defend the class’s weakest members. However, no matter how hopeless the task of trade-union agitation amongst “guest workers” at plants with mixed workforces might seem, this work has to be done. If they fail to recruit temporary workers and immigrants to their ranks, progressive trade unions will be condemned to live under a permanent threat that will deter and even completely halt their development.

However, the foregoing considerations in no way imply that immigrants, the most oppressed segment of the working class, are incapable of independent resistance and should be regarded as “scabs” or followers. It suffices to recall the heroic 2005 strike at the Don-Stroy construction company in Moscow, as well as the other, lesser-known strikes by construction workers in Yekaterinburg (2008) and Russky Island in Primorsky Krai (2011). In many ways, these events are reminiscent of the labor protests that typified the nineties in Russia. In all these cases, the cause of work stoppage was the non-payment of wages. The strikes broke out spontaneously and did not lead to the emergence of any sustainable forms of organization. Apparently, if protests by immigrant workers do continue to occur, then they will occur only in the form of sporadic, radical outbursts, which may affect government policy but are unlikely to have a significant impact on the development of the labor movement in Russia.

The organization of immigrant workers in manufacturing is not the only possible form of militancy, however. The problems associated with immigration concern broad sections of the Russian populace. The fact that ultra-rightists now wholly occupy this “field” should not frighten leftists away, but encourage them to advance an alternative program for solving the issue of immigration. The xenophobic rhetoric of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI) has to be countered with a stance that we might characterize as a new abolitionism – a movement against slavery.

A New Abolitionism: Outline of a Program for the Left

The favorite “anti-fascist” argument of liberals is to point out that immigrants are useful and necessary, that they do the “menial” work that no Muscovite or Petersburgers would consent to perform. The very existence of an entire sector of labor relations in which slavery and poverty exist at a level outrageous even for hard-to-shock Russians provokes no protest on the part of liberals. They call on society to be tolerant towards the Ravshans and Jamshuts, but not more than that.

In fact, aside from the greed of corporations that exploit cheap human resources from the peripheries of the former Soviet Union, there is no objective basis for the existence of this vast sector of what essentially amounts to slave labor. We hardly need to underscore the excess profits raked in by the construction sector, which is closely linked to the political elite. However, it is precisely the construction industry where the exploitation of immigrant labor has become most widespread. A similar situation can also be observed in the new industrial enterprises owned by transnational corporations. Thus, according to the Interregional Trade Union of Autoworkers (ITUA), immigrants make up seventy to eighty percent of workers employed in production at facilities in Russia that supply parts to the Hyundai plant in Petersburg – and this despite the fact that in 2011 this Korean corporation ranked first amongst foreign auto manufacturers in Russia in terms of cars sold.

When the populists from DPNI propose introducing a visa regime and securing the borders with the republics of Central Asia and Transcaucasia, they of course conveniently forget that there are depressed areas with enormous levels of unemployment within Russia itself: it suffices to recall the Russian hinterlands, not to mention the North Caucasus region. According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, “Over the past twenty years, the population has flocked to the Central Federal District, primarily to the Moscow area. Seventy to eighty percent of the increase in immigration is accounted for by an influx from other regions of the country, primarily from within the Central Federal District itself.” However, the situation of “Russian guest workers” is often no better than that of their counterparts from Central Asia, as is shown by the scandalous story of how female workers are treated at the Babaevsky chocolate factory in Moscow. The prescription proposed by the far right thus amounts not to eradicating poverty and criminality, but to Russifying them.

A system of quotas is just as useless. In practice it leads only to an increase in the proportion of illegal immigrants, as was illustrated by the situation in 2008, when a sharp reduction of quotas put thousands of foreigners outside the law overnight. As Nikita Mkrtchyan, a researcher at the Institute of Demography at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, rightly notes, “Quotas […] do not perform any of the functions invested in them. They do not protect the domestic labor market because all workers not covered by quotas swell the ranks of illegal immigrants – the most powerless, lowest-paid and, consequently, the most attractive workforce for business, a workforce that has a de facto presence on the market. […] The number of foreign workers that are needed is exactly the same as the number present on the market, if you add up the legal and illegal segments. The majority of immigrant laborers come to fill jobs that already exist, by prior arrangement with employers or their intermediaries, the so-called foremen. There are very few workers willing to buy an expensive ticket from, say, Tajikistan, to collect money from relatives [for the trip], without being sure that they will find work.” However, the abolition of quotas, now being pushed by the Federal Migration Service in defiance of the Ministry of Health and Social Development, is unlikely to produce any significant change. In fact, this measure would amount to a consolidation of the status quo, an admission that the previous system was useless. Whether “legalized” or not, immigrants will remain slaves as long as slavery is still in demand.

As concerns the police measures of control over immigrants strongly advocated by the fascists, they are useless in the absence of a coherent policy for eliminating the social causes of crime, as is shown by the entire history of policing. Drunkenness, drug addiction, theft, rape, and murder – all the long-familiar “charms” of modern life – flourish in any impoverished society without any help from immigrants. When they become part of such a society, newcomers are not always able to avoid its vices. According to data from the Federal Migration Service, however, the contribution of foreigners to crime statistics is small – only 3.5% of all crimes committed – although there are between seven and twelve million immigrants in Russia (that is, they constitute five to eight percent of the overall population). The myth of terrifying, criminal migrant workers is beneficial, especially to our truly terrifying and criminal law enforcement agencies, who pretend to be terribly busy fighting crime even as they collect tribute from silent Uzbeks and run protection rackets for the capitalist slave owners who employ the labor of illegal workers.

In the public debate about immigration, leftists should talk not about vicious Tajiks, Uzbeks, Moldovans or Chinese, but about the enormous numbers of the working and unemployed poor. It is obvious that without eradicating this vast island of humiliation and poverty it is impossible to talk seriously about combating the problems generated by immigration. This means a total ban on temporary and agency labor and other forms of precarious employment, and raising the minimum wage to match the real cost of living. Depending on the region, the minimum wage should in any case be no less than fifteen to twenty thousand rubles a month [approx. 350 to 450 euros], with obligatory annual indexing for inflation.

It is necessary to combat illegal employment, of course. But this campaign should be directed not against guest workers, who in this case are victims of a crime, but against slave-owning businessmen. At present, the penalties for employers who use illegal workers are laughable, which cannot be said of the immigrants themselves. Here is a typical story. After an inspection by the Petersburg prosecutor’s office, the construction firm LenSpetsSMU-Komfort was fined 825,000 rubles [approx. 19,000 euros] for employing forty-seven illegal workers during construction of a power plant. That is, the company paid out 17,500 rubles [approx. 400 euros] for each of its virtual slaves. It is also reported, however, that the workers were prosecuted under Article 18.10 of the Russian Federation Administrative Code, which stipulates a fine of two to five thousand rubles [approx. 45 to 115 euros] and possible expulsion from the country. Even government officials, however, acknowledge that most immigrant workers become illegal through no fault of their own. “For various reasons, not everyone wants the immigrants to be visible – for example, when an employer did not participate in the quota or it is simply not to his advantage to do this,” said Federal Migration Service spokesman Konstantin Poltoranin in 2009 (that is, before he was fired from the agency for his tireless concern over the “survival of the white race” and the “proper mixing of blood”).

Fining and deporting illegal immigrant workers is tantamount to punishing a victim of fraud. Is it any wonder that the vast majority of employers who use illegal labor go unpunished? For, unlike Russian workers, who fairly regularly appeal to the courts and the labor inspectorate, immigrant workers do not file complaints against their employers, who can always come to an understanding with police and bureaucrats.

It is an obvious truth that if a person works (and thus benefits society), he or she should work in humane conditions and be protected by labor laws that are identical for all working people. If labor laws are violated, then it is the employer who should be held responsible for the violation, and no one else. Instead of rounding up illegal immigrants, holding them in detention centers, and either deporting them at public expense or releasing them so that they can join the army of the homeless, the government should force their “owners” to restore the violated rights of workers: to provide them with a work contract, decent housing, medical insurance, a pension, and safe working conditions.

To the working people who today, echoing nationalist propaganda, accuse the newcomers of taking jobs away from Russian citizens, we reply: the only way to limit the influx of immigrants is to provide absolutely equal conditions for all workers, whether they are citizens or not. It is not Uzbeks or Tajiks who take away our jobs, but the capitalists and bureaucrats who profit at their and our expense.

Immigration Should Serve Society

We owe the fact that Russia’s major cities have turned into typical Third World capitals, where grinding poverty exists side by side with Asiatic luxury, to the collapse of the Soviet Union, along with its planned economy and well-developed social infrastructure. Migration from peripheral regions to places where heavy industry is concentrated, from the countryside to the towns and cities, has always existed, and it was never more massive in scale than during the twentieth century. However, the millions of peasants who were the ancestors of the majority of today’s city dwellers did not merely migrate to the cities. They were absorbed by the growing industrial sector and integrated into urban culture. They were provided with education and the other benefits of civilization. Whatever the horrors that accompanied the Stalinist industrialization, during that time the allocation of labor resources did not occur spontaneously, but according to plan. New regions of the country were explored and developed; new cities and gigantic industrial complexes were built. Yesterday’s peasants and residents of the former imperial hinterlands were given the chance to receive an education and job skills, to move up the career ladder.

Today, of course, everything is different. As Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes, “Even given the political will and economic opportunities […] there are no benchmarks of any kind, and ‘policy’ in this area is entirely reduced to ritual incantations. […] In the foreseeable future, the formation of poles of growth in the country’s eastern regions will be almost exclusively due to large-scale projects for the extraction of mineral resources. However, these do not require the hiring of large numbers of specialists and can be implemented using workers on a rotational basis. So there is likewise no point in counting on business having a stake [in solving the problems associated with immigrant labor].”

The new Russian capitalism, which emerged from the ruins of Soviet industry, requires skilled specialists less than it does arms and backs obedient to their master’s will. We can stop our large cities from overflowing with beggars and semi-impoverished people, and from nourishing an army of menial laborers, the unemployed, and dйclassй elements, only by developing the economies of our country’s regions. We need a policy aimed at re-industrializing the country, a policy that introduces intellectualized forms of labor, revives agriculture, and creates conditions from relocating workers from depressed areas to new industrial centers. In other words, we need to make the transition to a socialist planned economy. Only in this case can immigration be transformed from a festering societal sore into a powerful lever for our country’s progressive development.


Ivan Ovsyannikov // Russian Socialist Movement