Addressing the Problem of Labor Exploitation of Foreign Migrant Children in Russia

Posted: August 21, 2013 at 7:44 pm, Last Updated: August 27, 2013 at 6:09 pm

By Aaron Beitman

A combination of factors, including demographic decline and a lack of employment opportunities in neighboring countries, has led to increased illegal migration into Russia.  In recent years, scholars have observed this phenomenon has been characterized by greater numbers of female and child migrants.  Once in Russia, however, many illegal migrants are marginalized and largely excluded from Russian society.  Research based on the experiences of other countries, such as the U.S., suggests that marginalized migrants are more likely to contribute to future destabilization and social concerns.  Dmitry Poletaev, the director of the Moscow-based Center for Migration Research examines the problem of labor exploitation of foreign migrant children in Russia in a recent TraCCC-sponsored research project.

Research Context and Hypotheses

In highlighting a gap in the Russian academic literature on this subject, Dr. Poletaev makes a convincing case for the project’s relevance as well as the need for future research.  Drawing on historical sources, Dr. Poletaev describes how forced child labor was officially sanctioned during Soviet times, as children would join adults in harvesting crops and in other tasks.  As is well documented by the international media and human rights groups, this practice continues today in Uzbekistan.

Dr. Poletaev presents three central research hypotheses, all of which were confirmed by extensive qualitative data, including 300 interviews with foreign child migrants from former Soviet countries (mostly Central Asia), as well as 15 expert interviews and 7 in-depth interviews with foreign migrant children.  First, it is suggested that labor exploitation of migrant children in Russia has increased in magnitude and variation over time.  In particular, Dr. Poletaev postulates that the dangers of child labor and the share of child labor in informal sectors of the Russian economy have increased over time.  However, the exact nature of these increases is difficult to discern due to the latency of the problem.  Second, the project hypothesizes that violations of labor laws with respect to migrant children are closely related to their work in the informal economy.  Third, migrant difficulties in adapting to life in the Russian Federation have contributed to the extent of foreign migrant child labor exploitation.

Arrival and Marginalization

Why do foreign migrants come to Russia in the first place?  Of the 40,000 to 60,000 children of migrants found in the risk group that may be drawn into labor exploitation, Dr. Poletaev suggests that the absence of future employment possibilities in home countries and hopes for a higher standard of living are the major factors encouraging a child’s entrance into the Russian labor market.  Moreover, a number of child laborers in Russia are forced by their parents to seek employment in Russia because of bad economic conditions at home.  These children then act as financial lifelines to their families at home via remittances.

Once in Russia, limited access to schooling and questionable legal status encourage child migrants to enter the labor force at a younger age than their Russian counterparts.  This often means that child migrants are drawn to criminal and non-criminal work in Russia’s shadow economy, which is more often than not exploitative.  Drawing connections to the immigration debate in the United States, Dr. Poletaev argues that migrant children who fail to receive a proper education, experience marginalization in childhood, and are otherwise excluded from society, are more likely to pose problems for the Russian state and society in the future.

Policy Recommendations

To address this problem, Dr. Poletaev suggests that alongside the fight against corruption, which remains the most serious barrier to reform and development, a few key measures are called for.  First, the welfare of migrant children should be linked to that of all children in Russia.  Second, the residency permit process, which is crucial for gaining educational access, should be streamlined, as should the citizenship process for migrant families and child migrants who have received education in Russian schools.  Third, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can play an important role in supplementing official advocacy efforts, delivering services, and monitoring legislative and policy responses to this issue.

In addition to increasing social protection for all children, including migrants, Dr. Poletaev argues for more frequent inspections of worksites and more severe punishments for violations of labor laws.  Preventive measures must also be taken, such as working with potential migrants before they arrive in Russia.  Potential migrants and their parents should be informed about the risks they will be taking by bringing or sending their children to Russia.  It should be understood that by allowing migrant children to enter the Russian labor market, these children are likely forgoing the opportunity for an education, which will bring greater economic benefits via access to better paying jobs over the long-term.

Official Media Response

Shortly after the Russian State Duma approved a new law aimed at preventing the legal employment of migrants under 18 years old, Dr. Poletaev organized a conference on April 25, 2013 to publicize the results of his project.  Following the conference, the official newspaper Rossiskaya Gazeta, which publishes official texts of Russian laws and legislative bills, choose to provide significant positive coverage of Dr. Poletaev’s research.  Rossiskaya Gazeta appeared to agree with Dr. Poletaev’s conclusions, particularly with respect to proposals calling for the easing of residency and citizenship processes as well as access to basic schooling for migrants.  Additionally, Dr. Poletaev’s research was covered by the news outlets Vechernaya Moscow and Russia Today as well as the radio station “Avto-Radio” and the official news agency RIA Novosti.


Dmitry Poletaev’s meticulously researched project adds significantly to the knowledge of and ways to address the growing problem of labor exploitation of foreign child migrants in Russia.  Moreover, the positive reception of Dr. Poletaev’s work suggests that fine  research can influence important policy debates.

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