Ukrainian gastarbeiter: no chance of returning


            Since the beginning of the world economic crisis, a fair number of Ukrainian specialists and high-ranking politicians have been predicting a mass return of Ukrainian labour migrants.

            There was reason for concern. According to a comprehensive study of Ukrainian labour migration in EU countries conducted by Caritas Ukraine, in 2008 there were around 4.5 million Ukrainians working abroad, with over 2 million of them in Russia and around 1 million 700 thousand in EU countries. It was therefore easy to imagine the strain on Ukraine’s social services in the event of a mass return of even part of this number of Ukrainian nationals.

            However a year has passed and I have been told by one Ukrainian diplomat in Wrocław [Poland] that the number of Ukrainian labour migrants at least in that area is not only declining but, it would seem, is on the increase.

            2 major studies have been carried out in Ukraine over recent years regarding labour migration of Ukrainian nationals. The first is a nationwide selective survey of the population regarding labour migration, carried out by the Ukrainian Centre for Social Reform with the participation of the State Committee of Statistics, under the leadership of Ella Libanova. The second is that already mentioned by Caritas Ukraine in cooperation with the Academy of Sciences Ethnology Institute. Despite different methodology and areas where the studies were conducted, it is important to note that their data in the main paints more or less the same picture of labour migration among Ukrainians. The studies also coincide in their predictions for the prospects of Ukrainian labour migrants returning because of the world economic crisis.

The authors of these studies assume that Ukrainian labour migrants occupy a marginal market niche, seeking in the main the type of work that local people don’t want to do. The main areas up till now have been service jobs in private homes, looking after the elderly or children, construction, work in hotels or restaurants, agricultural work. The overwhelming majority live and work abroad illegally.

This in turn enables their employers to minimize expenditure on wages and illegally or semi-legally employed migrants will not be dismissed immediately. The authors of the nationwide selective survey therefore assert that the crisis “is unlikely to lead to a reduction in labour migration among the Ukrainian population, but rather the opposite – will give rise to a new wave of economic tourism.”

The ratio will fall of the socially better-off labour migration taking place in accordance with legislation of the recipient country. However due to the more deep-set and systemic nature of the crisis in Ukraine, as opposed to the EU, and subsequently a further drop in wages, especially their foreign currency equivalent, there will be a rise in export of informal employment. In the best instance, on a semi-legal basis without any social guarantees. Some migrants, if they lose their jobs, will be forced to agree to illegal employment, even where they have the relevant work permit. In general labour migrant employment will increasingly shift into the sector of household work where there is considerably less control over adherence to labour and tax legislation.

On the other hand few of those returning to Ukraine will be entitled to unemployment benefit due to the lack of social insurance contributions and a long gap between jobs. Those who retained a fictitious job in Ukraine can hope for only the minimum level of assistance. Most of those returning will remain focused on foreign labour migration as a form of working life, since the local labour market has long held little attraction for them.

The specific features of migrant behaviour during a world economic crisis are due to the interdependence of migration flows and the dynamic of global markets. Preliminary information suggests the following trends:

Movement of Ukrainian migrants within the boundaries of the EU is intensifying as they seek new jobs. Many for example concentrate on London in connection with the development of infrastructure in preparation for the Summer Olympics in 2012;

            On the other hand, labour migrants working in the home service sphere will endeavour to hold on to their jobs;

            Some construction and industrial workers will return to Ukraine but will be very willing to leave for work again;

            The influence of the Ukrainian and world banking system on the choice of migrants can be observed. People are concerned about the fate of their deposits in Ukrainian banks which are more profitable than in the West and this could lead to an exodus of money from Ukrainian to western banks;

More simply – some labour migrants will try to remain in the EU, holding on to their jobs or contacts developed for finding work, while others will move to various countries looking for work, and yet others will return but be ready to go away again (as well as those who have reached retirement age, or pre-retirement age and wanted to return).

The author spoke with Ukrainian labour migrants in Italy regarding the possibility of returning to Ukraine because of the crisis. He was told that they needed to work another four years in Italy, and only then would it be possible to return; that it was very difficult in Ukraine right now; that they can’t imagine how their family would get on if nobody was regularly sending money from Italy.

The views expressed by Ukrainians identify one other important criterion for the “crisis choice” of migrants in conditions of globalization of financial and economic relations. This is the level of faith in the national monetary unit, the hryvnya. Ukrainian labour migrants even in conditions of crisis will remain where there is a more realistic chance of finding and retaining a job and “real money”, and more often then not, returning is their last option.

Ihor Markov, Coordinator of the Caritas Ukraine Study Project into Ukrainian Labour Migration in countries of Europe (slightly abridged)

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