Labour of street cleaners – migrant workers in St. Petersburg

The ADC «Memorial» has received numerous complaints from migrant workers, especially street cleaners, about the unpaid wages, difficult and dangerous working conditions and oppression by the contracting firms. As a result, we decided to investigate who is responsible for the constant violations of the rights of migrant street cleaners, and why the workers do not receive even the minimum wage for their hard essential for the city labour – cleaning the houses and streets.

I have been interviewing the migrant workers-street cleaners from different districts of St. Petersburg, for a long time, finding out about their problems. As in other spheres that foreign citizens are engaged in, the most important problem involves wages: most often, they are extremely low and paid irregularly. For example, in order to earn 12,000 roubles a month, these people have to work every day, cleaning several multi-storey houses and squares. And even though both men and women work as street cleaners (unlike construction workers, for example), the female street cleaners are often paid less for the same work. Additionally, it is very difficult to defend thier rights, since labour contracts are not signed, and the city’s residential services often set up agreements with such “outsourcing” firms in order to avoid problems with documenting the foreigners.

During one of such interviews, I met Matlyuba, a citizen of Uzbekistan, who works as a street cleaner in the Moscow district of St. Petersburg. She told me about the pay rate for her work: every five-floor house pays 5,000 roubles a month. For cleaning five houses, Matlyuba receives 25,000 roubles a month, which is not a small amount for migrant workers. However, she is employed without a labor contract, and receives the money only 40 days later. There are 10 people total in Matlyuba’s work group, and the group’s leader, who is also a citizen of Uzbekistan, assigns tasks and sends the street cleaners to their jobs at specific addresses – for this, he gets paid additional money by the contracting firm. Still, Matlyuba does not complain about her job, even though it is difficult to clean five-floor houses each time.

Another situation took place in the Frunzensky district: there, citizens of Tajikistan, Gulya and her brother, have not received their wages for two months. During all this time, they continued to go to work, hoping that they would eventually get paid with the money that was promised to them. As Gulya related to me, there are two competing firms in this district, both hiring street cleaners. As a result of their mutual claims, the “guilty ones” turned out to be the migrant workers, who are not getting paid by either firm. Unfortunately, this happens very often: firms disappear and are replaced by new ones, who promise to pay the street cleaners regularly, but without paying for the debt of the previous firm. Moreover, it is often difficult to hold someone responsible: the violating firm soon disappears, and the migrant workers themselves are afraid of consulting anyone because they fear losing their jobs.

The street cleaners in the Nevsky district also work without labor contracts. The residential services prefer to deal with “cleaning companies” than hire the workers directly.  This situation suits all, but the migrants themselves, who suffer at the hands of dishonest employers and plain swindlers. For example, in December of 2010, a citizen of Uzbekistan disappeared with the 3-month wages of the street cleaners and has not been found since, even though the street cleaners appealed to the police and prosecutor’s office.

Another difficulty that street cleaners face is the housing problem: for the duration of their employment, they are given a room in broken down houses (where they are not registered) and often in basements without water and electricity, where they reside in horrible living conditions with their families. Yet the employers threaten to take away this dwelling or bring the Federal Migration Service for inspection, if the workers commit even a small infraction.

As the employees of the ADC “Memorial” found out, the system of employment of migrant workers in this field looks like the following. The firms that hire street cleaners, the so-called “cleaning companies” (there are several of them in the city and each “works” in several districts) set up work contracts with residential services for the cleaning their territory. The residential services pay money to the contracting firm and receive a cleaned area in return, not caring how difficult the cleaning will be. Next, the “cleaning company” hires street cleaners, both Russian and foreign citizens. However, labour contracts are always signed for Russian citizens, but not for foreigners. In fact, the firm does not set up any type of labour contracts or even check if the migrant workers have employment authorization or migration cards. Instead, a certain “team work force” system is used: a team leader is chosen among the migrants and the contractor sets up an agreement with him on the work load and wages, which are then divided among all the workers proportionally to their work input. It is interesting, though, that the roles of “team leaders” are taken by the workers themselves. They then bring their compatriots – relatives and friends – and employ them in their own “teams”. At the end of the month, the “manager” distributes the wages and deducts money for a poor cleaning job or not showing up for work.

In addition, if the street cleaners complain, they are threatened with police and Federal Migration Service. It is interesting to note, that even if the workers are detained by police while working for the contractors, they are soon let go after the contractors have a “conversation” with the police.

During another interview, I met Sevara, a citizen of Tajikistan, who is an active representative of street cleaners. She appealed more than once on behalf of the street cleaners, to the contractors, government agencies, as well as journalists. In fact, we at ADC “Memorial” found out about the workers’ plight from the TV news segment about the “street cleaners’ uprising” in the Nevsky district, and decided to intervene.

Sevara has been trying to defend her rights for a long time, as well the rights of her fellow countrymen and other migrant street cleaners of the Nevsky district. They even turned to their Diaspora for help, but they could not offer them realistic aid. The “contractors” and residential services constantly threatened Sevara, reminding her she did not have employment authorization, and threatening her with dismissal from work and deportation.

I was shocked by the sheer determination and bravery of this woman, her desire to defend her rights in such a difficult situation. The employees of ADC “Memorial”  maintained contact specifically with Sevara while negotiating with the “contractors” and government agencies.

Together with other workers of our organisation, we conducted a meeting with the street cleaners at their work place – at the house yards of the Nevsky district, where we asked them about their problems and recorded their complaints on their employers.

At first, there were not a lot of people present, but soon, more and more migrant workers began to show up, who were also not satisfied with their working conditions and wages. A lot of women came with their children in their hands, and said, that in order to feed their families, they had to clean additional houses.

The people willingly told about their job and life in Russia, invited us to their homes, in order to show us what kind of conditions they lived in.

Mairam Samikova

Legal response (Anna Udyarova, legal expert at ADC “Memorial”): At the meeting with migrant workers in the Nevsky district, the employees of ADC “Memorial” collected necessary information and recorded complaints about the unpaid wages, failure to set up labour contracts, threats and the difficult socio-economic living conditions of migrants and their families. For the purpose of defending their rights, we wrote a petition from the ADC “Memorial”, in which we thoroughly described all the violations, expressed our concern about the long-time, mass violations of the rights of migrant street cleaners.

In this situation, the victims are undeniably the migrant workers, whose labour has been used by both residential services and contracting firms to accomplish their illegal goals. This situation is similar to the labour of migrant workers in large retail outlets, which also use the system of “outsourcing” (hiring migrant workers through special contracting firms). Such actions were recently discussed at the meeting of the management of Federal Migration Services with the representatives of retain outlets. Additionally, the open letter to the manager of Federal Migration Service, K. Romodanovsky, is published in the current issue of ADC “Memorial”.

In our petitions to the city’s Prosecutor’s Office, Chief Administration of Internal Affairs and State Labour Inspection Services, to the administration of the Nevsky district, we petitioned to conduct inspections and hold the guilty employers and middlemen responsible, to create a transparent system of recruiting migrant workers to the residential-communal field (official registration of migrant workers in residential services, establishment of labour or civil law contracts, adherence to labour laws concerning the migrant workers, including the practice of equal and just compensation for work.

Recently, we received responses to our petition from the district administration and State Labour Inspection Services. The district administration informed us, that the organisation “Zhilkomservice” (Residential Services) does not stipulate of having street cleaners. This creates a question: what does the organisation do and how does it achieve its direct goals? But the State Labour Inspection Services hypocritically informed us, that they “do not examine the violations of those, who work without labour contracts” (although this in itself is a serious violation of labour rights!).

Therefore, unfortunately, such answers yet again demonstrated the unwillingness of the city’s government body to fight against the real violations of rights of migrant workers and the discrimination in the field of labour, although they ironically received the award from UNESCO for the advancement of the ideas of tolerance and the achievement of the annual program “Harmonization of Inter-Ethnic Relations.” Since it is clear that the violations of rights of migrant workers, hypocritically covered with modern laws and even government body’s systems, not only discourages the creation of “tolerant environment” in the city, but also contradicts the fundamental principles of non-discrimination, equal rights and effective protection of rights, regardless of nationality, citizenship and social status.

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