Global Economics

How Labor Migration Is Changing Ukraine


Traditionalists fear workers' migration is undermining Ukrainian society and liberals emphasize the advantages, but serious debate about the issue is lacking

All sides agree that labor migration is changing Ukrainian society, but serious debate on the issue is absent.

Several years ago Ukraine's then-president, Leonid Kuchma, referred to Ukrainian women working in Italy as prostitutes. Ever since, the public discourse on the role of labor migrants has become more intense and splintered.

In recent years, Ukraine has become one of the major labor exporting countries in Europe. This has left its mark on Ukrainian society and changed the perception of the labor migrants, the zarobitchany.

As both Russia and Ukraine's European Union neighbors developed their own policies on temporary emigration and immigration, Ukraine remained trapped in a zone of indecision. Its two biggest neighbors, Poland and Russia, see the need to attract workers from Ukraine and elsewhere to mitigate problems of aging populations and the shrinking pool of workers, but Ukraine seems unprepared to counter its own demographic crisis. Debate on migration in the media and politics is fragmented and tendentious, as proponents of different views prefer to deliver monologues on the topic rather than engage in real dialogue.

When they do talk about it, what Ukrainian experts and politicians alike often focus on is the number of migrants actually working abroad - estimates range from 2 million to about 7 million. While most scholars put forward rather conservative estimates, politicians seem to overstate the numbers of labor migrants. The argument over the "real" number of zarobitchany develops into a political fight, in which the zarobitchany become pieces in games played by competing forces. The political opposition uses high numbers as a hammer to bash government social and labor policies that fail to prevent people from (temporarily) leaving Ukraine, and it presents itself as the advocate of "normal" Ukrainians.

THE MODERN WAY TO MIGRATE

Under this surface, the public debate on labor migrants reveals the divergent orientations and development agendas politicians or groups have ready for Ukraine. While the Polish political and intellectual elite engages in a rather "modern" debate on the current demographic and the growing labor-market crisis, and Russia oscillates between modern and traditional ideas and politics, the dominant Ukrainian discourse is characterized by traditional and "anti-modern" elements.

People talk and think about labor migration largely in terms of people traveling west to work, yet the main recipient of such migration, Russia, hardly figures in public discussion. Official and permanent migration from Ukraine to Russia has dropped after peaking in the 1990s, but much undocumented migration continues. These migrants can easily and legally travel to Russia thanks to a visa-free policy, but most are illegally working without a permit. Workers in this group, estimated at about 1 million, come from all regions of Ukraine. Most are men who work predominantly in construction, especially in and around Moscow and other industrial centers.

One reason for the lack of concern with migration to Russia could be its perceived and unchallenged "normality," because these zarobitchany are doing nothing new. Ukrainians have long worked in Russia on a temporary basis, mostly in the form of entire brigades, and well-established networks exist that facilitate this process. Some of these networks have a business character and some are intertwined with organized crime. What is largely unnoticed in the media is that most Ukrainians in Russia work in the shadow economy and that the present migration often takes place under much worse conditions than in Soviet times.

In contrast, labor migration to the countries of the European Union receives much more attention, thanks not only to its considerable extent but also to its distinct features and relative novelty. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry estimated several years ago that about 300,000 Ukrainians worked in Poland, 200,000 in Italy, up to 200,000 in the Czech Republic, 200,000 in Spain, and 150,000 in Portugal. In all these countries, they have only limited opportunities to work legally, despite some recent legal changes, legalization campaigns, and intergovernmental agreements.

Westward labor migration is more evenly balanced between women and men - in some regions, women are even over-represented - and involves disproportionately more people from central and western Ukraine.

These facts influence the tone of the discussion about westbound migration in a way that reflects Ukrainians' view of their relationship to the West, especially the EU.

WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST

Ukraine faces a severe demographic crisis as its population rapidly shrinks and ages. According to the last Soviet census, in 1989, Ukraine had about 52 million inhabitants. By 2002 the population had fallen to 48 million, and according to some forecasts it will keep falling to about 38 million in 2050. Permanent emigration after the breakup of the Soviet Union contributed to the decline, but only moderately, and was partly offset as ethnic Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars, and other "traditional" nationalities returned to Ukraine from other parts of the fragmenting USSR. High mortality and low fertility rates are the main drivers of the crisis. In addition, HIV/AIDS is a ticking time bomb.

Concerns over demographic and social change, added to facts such as the high share of women workers in the West - in Ukraine's western regions, between 60 percent and 70 percent of labor emigrants are female - and the rural or small-town origin of many emigrants strengthen the claims of those who argue migration is helping undermine Ukrainian traditional life.

The absence of so many women - mothers and future mothers - from Ukraine is often painted by traditionalists as the main reason for the declining birthrate and as a cause of the decay of the traditional Ukrainian family. In this view, mothers abandon their children, and wives their husbands. In addition, it is bemoaned that Ukrainian women abroad are forced into prostitution, thus losing the moral right or even the physical ability to bear children.

The traditionalists often cast as irresponsible and selfish the women who leave their husbands and children at home in search of a new life.

They also blame recent labor migration for a perceived social decay in Ukraine. Many traditionalist social critics juxtapose Ukraine, represented by disenfranchised but decent labor migrants, against the - to say the least - morally suspect societies of the European Union. Behind this kind of argument lies a belief in the pernicious influence of the West that emerges from leftist and rightist thinking alike.

The leader of the Communist Party, Petro Simonenko, for example, not long ago attacked the "orange camp" that came to power with President Viktor Yushchenko for portraying labor migrants as active people and investors. Such people are damaging Ukrainian society, he claimed, accusing them of spreading alcoholism, drug abuse, and AIDS. In encouraging women migrants in particular, the government was undermining their true role - to bear and raise healthy children.

ONE-SIDED DEBATES

Survey research in Ukraine suggests that the migrants themselves have quite a different view and shows just how wide is the gap between what others say about migrants and how migrants see themselves. Although many had negative experiences abroad, labor migrants perceive themselves as much more actively involved in shaping their own lives than do nonmigrants.

What political recommendations and claims do the traditionalists derive from these arguments? While in Western Europe, and increasingly in Poland and even in Russia, regulated immigration is viewed as a means to counter the demographic crisis and "rejuvenate" both the labor force and the population at large, such opinions are exceptional in Ukraine. Instead, a number of ideas are in the air. Some argue that the state should encourage the labor migrants to return to Ukraine by creating new jobs, if necessary from the state budget. Those concerned with the decay of the family call for all things detrimental to the flourishing of the traditional Ukrainian family to be combated: divorce, pornography, prostitution, birth control, and abortion. At the same time, the countryside - where the largest share of labor migrants comes from - should be given a boost, again by budgetary means. While these are essentially ideas based on traditional views, the proposed means are rather technocratic and reminiscent of Soviet policies.

The traditionalists do not have a monopoly on public debate over migration and all the social processes associated with it. Other politicians and commentators see the trends and contradictions underscored by the phenomenon of labor migration as an inevitable part of modernization and globalization. Work abroad can bring many material advantages to individuals and to wider Ukrainian society, they say. One of those advantages is sorely needed cash: by rough estimates, migrants remit several billion dollars annually to their families in Ukraine. Even though this view does not deny the social problems caused by labor migration, it emphasizes that labor migration is an individual response to economic and social hardship. Some liberal experts and politicians favor a program to boost immigration. But this weakly developed debate has not yet resulted in political programs, let alone policy.

Missing from the public discussion of labor migration is serious debate between traditionalists and liberals. The zarobitchany become depersonalized figures in one faction or another's overall development proposals. Curiously, the views and experiences of the labor migrants themselves go largely unheard.


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