Karim is still only twenty. He sends most of his wages, which amount to approximately 15,000 rubles (around 400 euros), to his parents, sister, and two little brothers back home.
“You’re still so young. But you’ve already shouldered such responsibility. At your age, most Petersburg kids are still cared for by their parents. What do you want in life?”
“I want to enter the university. How much money do I need to get in?”
This still isn’t a plan nor is it a hope. It’s a dream, rather. Because Karim will need a place to live, time off work, and knowledge of Russian. But his workday—the workday that gives him the minimal wage he needs to survive and support his family—doesn’t have regular hours.
“When is your next day off?”
“I don’t know. When the glue runs out!”
Karim has been in Petersburg for a year already, but he got his papers—and the chance to leave the construction site—only two months ago. He entered the thin ranks of those whose employers get permits for their workers in order to lend their operations the semblance of legality. It was thanks to this that we met. Otherwise, he’d still be working behind the wall that surrounds the site, and I’d still be walking by along my well-trodden path.
Papers mean a lot, of course, and the bureaucrats make a pretty penny off the paperwork and fees. The legal status they provide migrant workers is quite illusory, however. Everyone I managed to talk with told me about incidents in which they’d been stopped by policemen and asked to produce their papers. When the policemen saw that everything was in order, without batting an eye they declared the papers counterfeits. Then the guardians of order demanded money. If the workers refused to pay such “fines,” the policemen would began screaming about “all the riffraff who’ve flooded the cultural capital.” They would make threats and even search the men’s pockets.
“Papers don’t save you from extortion,” says Dilshod. “The only thing that saves you is a shield!” he laughs, pointing to the advertising placards on his back and chest that dangle from cords running over his shoulders. This affable forty-something man was forced to get a job as a “human sandwich” after his employers at the construction site swindled him, giving him less than two thousand rubles (approximately fifty-five euros) for a month and half’s work. We could say he that was unlucky, that he was taken for a ride by con men. But when the con men include such major, well-respected companies as Parnas-M, we have to conclude that the problem is systemic.
Several months ago, Parnas-M hired three hundred workers through a subcontractor. After two months on the job, the workers not only hadn’t seen a paycheck, they hadn’t seen their passports, either. The subcontractor vanished into thin air along with the passports, and the owners of the Northwest Region’s largest producer of meat products took its share of the ill-gotten goods. None of this was even briefly mentioned in the press. The scandal didn’t rock Petersburg because, as is the case with extortion by men in grey police uniforms, the victims were people who have no access to the mass media, people who have no voice. People with whom we, who have decided to link our lives to revolution, are still only searching for a common tongue.
I slip my tongue between his lips, and he smiles. A French kiss is something out of the ordinary for my dear comrade from the conservative Uzbek countryside. We very quickly achieve mutual understanding in the language of gestures, caresses, and emotions. But how can we share more than this? Together we look at posters decorated with hammers and sickles, the faces of Fidel and Che. After finding an English-Uzbek dictionary on the Internet, I try and tell him about the worker’s movement in the US, about how Mexican immigrants form unions and hold demonstrations. The hard thing is to show him that the struggle of workers isn’t the abstract fist and star on my Venezuelan t-shirt, but something real. Something that might become a part of his life here, in cold Petersburg. Something that should become part of my life, too. Because right now my life is little more than a t-shirt bearing the slogan, “Death to Capitalism!”
Except for Parnas-M, all names in this article have been changed.