02/11/2009, 00.00
RUSSIA
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Migrant workers from central Asia, modern "slaves" of the new Russian empire

After a two-year investigation, Human Rights Watch denounces the systematic exploitation and abuse on the part of employers and police. Millions of construction workers accept any form of humiliation, to escape hunger. Passports "confiscated," wages paid only in part, injured workers left without help.

Moscow (AsiaNews/HRW) - Millions of migrant workers, mainly from poor central Asian countries, are "exploited by their employers" in Russia, and suffer "extortion and abuse by police and other officials." In a report published yesterday, Human Rights Watch denounces the systematic discrimination against these workers, often motivated in part by racial hatred, and now exacerbated by the global financial crisis.

The group headed by Jane Buchanan, an HRW expert on Europe and central Asia, conducted an investigation, gathering 146 testimonies in 49 cities from construction workers, between 2006 and 2008. She says that almost all of the migrants work in the underground economy, even though Russian law requires a work contract. They work in dangerous conditions, for miserable wages. Sometimes "intermediaries" confiscate the migrants' passports, and then force them to work without pay, other times the workers are beaten into absolute obedience.

A 30-year-old Tajik worker explained to HRW that they are not given the opportunity to protest when the employer withholds part of their pay. He says that "we simply took what they gave us and left."

A Kyrgyz worker fell and injured his abdomen while he was working on buildings in Moscow. He explains that "to go to a doctor is expensive. I didn't have any insurance." He treated the injury himself, with the help of a coworker.

There are 9 million migrant workers in Russia, 80% of whom come from former Soviet countries where they face hunger, and therefore tempt fate by crossing the border without visas. More than 40% of them are employed in the construction industry, which was one of the main activities in the country before the crisis.

The police also abuse the workers, extorting money from them when they inspect the documents, or requiring them to work for free at the police station or somewhere else.

Buchanan observes that "Russia's migrant workers are vulnerable at almost every turn . . . workers often labor for months, waiting and hoping to be paid . . . It's time for the government to stop acting as if migrant workers don't have rights and take decisive action against abusive employers and employment agencies," and also against the intermediaries, with careful supervision of workplaces.

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