Pyotr Prinyov: “If you want to spit on your future, spit on a migrant worker”
Pyotr Prinyov is one of the most prominent figures in the Petersburg protest movement. You can spot him at rallies held by workers and forest defenders, dormitory residents and students, and before regular union meetings you can catch him reading Martin Heidegger and Eugene Debs. Having started as a labor activist at the company MM Poligrafoformlenie Packaging, Pyotr is now deputy chair of the interregional trade union NovoProf and one of the leaders at the Center for Workers’ Mutual Aid.
— Pyotr, NovoProf is one of the few Russian trade unions that work with migrant workers. Your campaign in support of Petersburg janitors made a big splash. Tell us how it all began and what the situation is now.
— It all started when workers at Evrotrakt approached us and asked help in organizing a trade union local. Evrotrakt is a property management company that also does cosmetic building repairs in [Petersburg’s] Nevsky district. According to rumors, a certain bureaucrat launched this little firm, which was incorporated in the [Leningrad region] village of Gostilitsy. They say that a Petersburg deputy governor oversees the firm.
The trade union local was formed last winter. The situation there is quite difficult: we are dealing with the issues of wages and migrant workers living in the area where they work. When the janitors started to fight for [better] wages and a more or less acceptable workload, eight out of twenty union members were immediately dismissed. They were also evicted from the place where they were living, in a building slated for resettlement.
— You’re saying the building is unfit for habitation?
— Practically speaking, yes. Evrotrakt lures migrants by providing housing; plus, they make some arrangements with the local police or the Federal Migration Service. Apparently, Evrotrakt, which is quite greedy, decided to house migrants from Tajikistan in this building, which it has been contracted to renovate. And make money off them in the process. Around two hundred people live in the building, ten to twelve people to a flat. There is no running water, and often there is no electricity and heat, as was the case this winter. Just today, we talked with Sevara, one of the activists. They offered to let her an apartment in this building for twenty thousand rubles, although the local council owns the apartment.
— What sort of wages do the janitors make?
— They’re ridiculous. According to the employer, they amount to fifteen thousand rubles a month [approx. 375 euros], but the real wage is much lower. And they have an entire thriving system of penalties [for infringement of work rules] in place. There are months when the workers take home six or seven thousand rubles [approx. 150 to 175 euros] – and this for people living in Petersburg! People are basically starving. Some of them pick leaves from trees to brew “tea.” The workday lasts from dawn to dusk, and they are forced to work on weekends. And they are constantly being conned when it comes to registration [with the Federal Migration Service] and work invitations.
— How are they conned?
— [Employers] use shady firms that ostensibly do the paperwork for the migrant workers, but really just fleece them of ten thousand rubles each [approx. 250 euros]. Then, when their documents are checked [by police or migration officials], it turns out they are fake. People disappear, and new ones arrive to take their place. Migrants are an easy target for law enforcement, and this is beneficial to employers. It is quite easy to force migrants to work a lot and for free or to get rid of undesirables. Especially if you have the right connections.
— Is the situation like this only at Evrotrakt?
— No, this is a quite typical situation. Two busloads of Tajiks are loaded up and taken to a construction site. The first week, they are give ramen noodles to eat; the second, they get nothing. And then they are told, “Beat it! We’re not going pay you. Be grateful we gave you back your passports.”
In fact, this is slavery, but no one pays any mind. Any law enforcement agency needs facts that are backed up by paperwork. But what sort of paperwork could there be in this case? You have to go to the work sites and actually check out what is going on.
— Does corruption play a big role in this business?
— Evrotrakt has close ties with law enforcement agencies, and with the prosecutor’s office. When the migrants filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office, the owner of the firm, apparently imagining he was the Lord God, rang up our janitors and said, “Why are you complaining about me? I have everything under control. You won’t get anywhere.”
The previous company, Lyuks-servis, which Evrotrakt squeezed from the market, was also not known for its philanthropy. Thanks to Memorial [Anti-Discrimination Center], they were fined one and a half million rubles [approx. 38,000 euros] for employing illegal aliens. But Evrotrakt is still fighting this [outcome]. For some reason, the authorities are turning a blind eye. We’ve already taken one case, asking for the fired workers to be reinstated, to court. This is the first step.
— Does the firm work under a government contract?
— Not under a government contract, but through the tender system. Because they work cheaply, they win bids [for provision of services]. And they work cheaply because they don’t pay wages to their workers, and when they do pay them, it is only enough to buy ramen noodles, which the workers have to wash down with water from the Neva River.
All this is beneficial for the city authorities since they have a workforce they can use to clean the city cheaply.
— But not very efficiently, as the past winters have shown.
— Who cares about efficiency these days? It is easier to hire several thousand Uzbeks than to purchase decent snow removal equipment. Because you can use those Uzbeks to write off a payroll bill that would be enough for them to live on, socially adapt and get job skills. But why pay them when you can just steal the money?
— How do migrants end up in Russia? Is it a spontaneous process, or is it organized?
— The workers who come here have already been hyped into thinking they will have a place to live, a job and money. Special runners are sent to recruit this workforce. Most of the people who turn to us are from Tajikistan, where things are the worst in terms of social benefits, wages and hope for the future. There are also lots of people coming from Uzbekistan. As a rule, these are people from rural areas who sign up for a job whatever the pay just to be able to leave. It is not just families that come here, but entire villages. The population there has been reduced to total poverty. But on the other hand, we should realize that these are active people, people willing to pick up stakes in one place and move to another country.
— How well do the migrants know Russian?
— In our trade union local [for janitors], only three people speak Russian. This is one of the reasons why exploitation of migrants is so advantageous. Tajiks and Uzbeks will not go and file a complaint, simply because they cannot speak Russian. In the slave-trading states they come from, Russian is a nearly forgotten language: it is not taught [in schools] at all. The employer communicates with workers through so-called foremen, who are paid a bit more and have managerial ambitions. A “foreman” of this sort can pocket a portion of the payroll, thus bypassing the boss.
— There have been repeated attempts to create trade unions for migrant workers, but they failed. How do you view the work of organizing foreign workers?
— I see a great future here, but there is one “but.” It should not be a trade union of migrant workers, but a trade union that defends the interests of workers whether they are migrant workers or not. Migrant workers must be included in existing trade union organizations. The trade unions themselves must do this in order to obtain normal industry-wide pay rates for labor and develop their trades normally, rather than relegating them to the level of menials, as we see, for example, in the case of roofers.
At NovoProf, we are now developing a whole program for working with immigrants. Our union basically covers the food industry, one of those sectors where foreign workers are employed. We want to involve migrant workers in the trade union struggle. Otherwise, sooner or later spontaneous riots will kick off, which will scare the local population and play into the hands of nationalists.
— It is argued that migrant workers are an evil, because they take jobs away from Russians. What do you think?
— This is nonsense! The people who make this argument pay no attention to the job market or what is happening around them. Migrants are mostly employed as unskilled laborers, unlike Russians, who usually do not aspire to work as janitors and construction workers. What, if we up and closed the borders right now, the Sukhorukovs and Bondariks [well-known local nationalists] would rush off to work on a construction site or go clean courtyards?
— Why, then, is the topic of migrant workers nowadays such a red flag for many people, including workers?
— These workers do not realize that if you just remove the migrant workers, the niche for slave labor and semi-slave labor will not go away. Our own fellow citizens will fill it. So, if you want to spit on your future, spit on a migrant worker.
Unfortunately, our society has lost the culture of internationalism that existed in Soviet times. I remember very well the attitude to people from other republics in the Kursk region, in the village where I grew up. A lot of families from the south came to our village when the Soviet Union collapsed and the bloodbath began. They were seen as perfectly decent people.
People do not realize that there is this whole policy to ensure that workers fear workers just like themselves who have come from another country. While workers are busy fighting fellow workers across ethnic lines, they are not fighting their immediate exploiters.
It is not profitable for employers to create decent social head starts for the younger generation, so that people not only achieve a certain level of consumption, but also have the opportunity to realize themselves. I guess as long as capitalism exists, this will always be the case. Because it is much more complicated to extract profit from a literate, educated person.
May 21, 2012 — Russian Socialist Movement