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Nigel Harris

Moscow’s migrants

(May 1987)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 98, May 1987, p. 9.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

DID YOU see the story about Moscow having a lower standard of living than the rest of the Soviet Union? The tortuous argument went like this: in order to meet the demand for unskilled manual labour in the city over the past 15 years, 700,000 workers have been brought in from poorer parts of the country. Currently, some 70,000 arrive each year to do the jobs Muscovites will not do. Mostly young people, they arrive on temporary visas and live in dormitories, but after three years of good behaviour, they can get permanent status.

The natives, the beneficiaries of this import of cheap labour, complain bitterly that the city and its services are being swamped by outsiders: they want tighter immigration controls. The city authorities did try to restrict entries more tightly, but on all sides the public employers protested that they could not meet their plan targets unless they had the right to bring in cheap labour.

A few issues ago this column featured the problems of a growing scarcity of unskilled manual labour in Japan (SWR, November 1986) and in the United States (SWR, December 1986) and it is interesting that similar issues afflict the Soviet Union. The problem in the Soviet Union is less an overall shortage in the country than scarcity in particular places like Moscow. The scarcity is a product of controls – otherwise masses of workers would migrate there, since the wages and conditions are the best.

Siberia is the opposite because of its ferocious climate and poor facilities. Workers will only go there for temporary periods and, by Soviet standards, very high wages. The government has long tried to get workers to move out of some areas – for example, from Central Asia – to Siberia. Big construction projects (for example, the Daykal-Amur railway, the Tyumin oil fields) have great difficulties in recruiting and keeping an adequate labour force.

There is a supply of labour, however, which is fully mobile without high pay: foreign workers. It is not clear how big this labour force is. In the spring of 1982 a Japanese newspaper picked up an article by the Vietnamese Minister of Labour in the Hanoi daily, Nhan Dan. The minister said an agreement had been reached with the Soviet Union for 10,000 Vietnamese workers to go to work in the Soviet Union. Commentators speculated that this labour was in part repayment for Vietnam’s £2 billion debt to Moscow. The workers were to work for five to six years, the minister said, in coal mines, chemical plants, textile and engineering factories and in the south where the climate was warmer. They would be joining “several thousand” other Vietnamese undergoing training as apprentices in Russian factories.

At about the same time, Radio Prague reported that some 14,000 Vietnamese workers were working in Czechoslovakia, and another Hanoi daily, Hanoi Moi, carried a report that some 50,000 Vietnamese workers were employed in East Germany, Hungary and Bulgaria. Izvestiya gave more details on the Russian picture: “over 7,000” Vietnamese, between the ages of 17 and 35, were in training in the Soviet Union for one year; Tass amplified – one year’s training and four years working.

Nayan Chanda, one of the leading journalists on Vietnam, reported from Hanoi sources that the flow of workers to the Soviet Union is not at all new. Since at least 1967 workers have been sent there “supposedly for vocational training but in fact providing cheap labour for Soviet factories”. The workers, he says, get “board, lodging, clothing and a small amount of pocket money for the first three years”, with full pay after that. Most of the workers are aged between 18 and 25, and none are permitted families. Other sources say the overwhelming majority of Vietnamese workers are sent to Siberia, and the Soviet government retains 60 per cent of their pay as part repayment of Vietnam’s debt.

From Vietnamese refugees in Canada come stories of letters received from their relatives, working as “guest workers” in the Soviet Union. They complain of the very long separation from their families, the poor conditions and pay. Some say that between 60,000 and 100,000 Vietnamese workers were officially working overseas. One man, living in a work camp next to a construction site in Siberia, wrote:

“We are given seven roubles a month as allowances, enough to buy ten packs of cigarettes. That is all we get. When I first arrived, they issued me with one pair of winter shoes, a thick jacket, a sweater, a pair of trousers, one cheap shirt and some undershirts and shorts, to be used for the next three years ... When I left home, I never expected life in this Russian region would be so wretched. Winter is raging right now ...”

The issue is not the same as in the United States for the numbers are small alongside the Soviet labour force (37 million employed in industry, 11 million in construction). But the mobility and the cheapness must seem remarkable to Soviet industrial planners, as well as the degree of discipline that must be exercised to survive in Siberia’s permafrost – rebel workers cannot run away.

The migration of workers is always a response to the anarchic or accidental location of new employment – the movement of labour “equilibriates” demand and supply. It is essential to maintain profits, and generally costs governments nothing. Furthermore, the migrant is always a good target on which to heap blame for the failures of the government or employers. The same principle seems to be true in the Soviet Union, even though the country still seems to have big reserves of unskilled labour in the countryside and tightly controlled wages. Any increase in the tempo of growth – the target of the Gorbachev regime – can only exaggerate the localised scarcities, forcing either increased wage differentials or increased immigration.

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