Migrant workers in Russia found themselves legislated out of a job yesterday after a law reserving retail jobs for ethnic Russians entered into force.
The legislation, which has been described as state-sponsored racism by human rights activists, bans non-Russians from working in large chunks of the country's retail sector.
In particular it prevents anyone who doesn't hold a Russian passport from working in Russia's huge indoor and outdoor food-and-clothing markets and in the thousands of roadside kiosks that sell anything from newspapers to cosmetics. Such jobs are usually low paid and involve working at least 12-hour days.
Until yesterday, it was not uncommon to visit a market staffed exclusively by migrant workers from across the former Soviet Union. But, as of yesterday, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from countries such as Georgia, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan are looking for a new job.
In Russia's Far East, where such positions have typically been filled by Chinese migrant workers, the impact was felt immediately. Many of them appear to have already packed their bags and returned home.
At Ussuriysk's vast market near the Chinese border, almost all the stalls were reported to be deserted. "We had hoped good sense would prevail ... This could disrupt the economy and bring many problems," said Sergei Simakov, a district councillor from Ussuriysk.
Some commentators have raised fears that prices may rise as employers are forced to pay higher wages and have questioned whether ethnic Russians will be willing to take up jobs that entail such long hours. At Moscow's famous Dorogomilovsky food market several stalls were denuded of their usually exotic mixture of fruit and vegetables from across the vast region. In their place hung signs that read: "Wanted: Sales-people. Must be Russian."
Officials from the country's migration service raided a Moscow market yesterday. That is a sign that the Kremlin expects the new law to be scrupulously followed. Four foreign workers were detained.
A spokesman for the Federal Migration Service said the raid proved that the new law was effective. "Considering that this particular market has 1,200 trading stalls and only four foreigners were detected you can conclude that in general the law is working." The Kremlin insists that there is nothing racist about the law that it says is intended to protect the rights of ethnic Russians, who have complained of being squeezed out of the retail sector by migrant workers.
In public question-and-answer sessions, President Vladimir Putin is often asked what he plans to do to clean up markets controlled by what some people call "ethnic criminal gangs". The issue has become heavily politicised after a dispute between ethnic Russians and Chechens last year in the northern town of Kondopog escalated into a race riot that left two men dead.
Mikhail Fradkov, the Prime Minister, has claimed that the new legislation will make life easier for migrant workers too. "These measures are designed to sort out migration, bring order to markets, and have been prepared for sanitary reasons and to create good conditions for Russian producers in the first instance."
Human rights activists have warned that nationalism is on the march ahead of parliamentary elections in December and a presidential election next year and have accused the state of pandering to racists. Sova, a group that monitors racist violence, says 539 people suffered racist attacks last year, of whom 54 died.
Allison Gill, the head of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch, said the new law meant the Kremlin had become complicit in racism. "It is discrimination and is xenophobic and racist," she told The Independent.
"The government needs to be sending a signal that it is not acceptable to discriminate against non-Russians. It should not be participating." The irony, she added, was that in the Soviet era Russia was famous for promoting "friendship between peoples" hosting large numbers of students from the developing world. "But now that slogan seems to have been turned on its head. It is now Russia for Russians."Reuse content