Migrants from Central Asia used to flock to Russia to work as street sweepers, cab drivers or restaurant cleaners
Saint Petersburg (AFP) - When heavy snowfall hit Russia's second city of Saint Petersburg last month it was nothing unusual, but city officials were overwhelmed and scrambled to find anyone to clear the streets.
As pedestrians slipped and suffered bruises and fractures, exasperated city officials ended up telling residents to go out and shovel the snow themselves.
The city was unable to clear the snowdrifts because of an exodus of migrants from Central Asia who normally do such backbreaking work in Russia's largest cities. They have headed back home after Russia's ruble currency plunged in value.
"Almost 30 percent of the workers who left to spend New Year's as usual with their families in Uzbekistan or Tajikistan have not come back," said the head of a street cleaning company, who asked not to be named.
The deputy governor of Saint Petersburg, Igor Albin, said recently that the city had lost half the migrant workers who do this type of manual labour.
Migrants from the ex-Soviet states in Central Asia used to flock to Russia to work as street sweepers, gypsy cab drivers or restaurant cleaners. Even the low wages seemed better than conditions back home.
But many are returning to their countries as the Russian economy is choked by crippling Western sanctions over the Ukraine crisis and plunging oil prices. That has caused the ruble to lose half its value against the dollar, hitting migrants' paychecks hard.
- 'No choice but to leave' -
Wielding a shovel in a snowy courtyard, Shavkat Mirzoyev, 47, said he wants to stay on in Saint Petersburg but admitted: "It's getting hard. If the situation gets worse, we'll have no choice but to leave."
Almost three million people from Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan live legally in Russia, while many more are there below the radar of the authorities. They are mostly unskilled workers who are paid off the books.
The money they send to their families back home accounts for up to half their countries' gross domestic product.
Galloping inflation in Russia is also eating into how much Central Asian workers can send home, and once the weaker rubles are converted into local currency their remittances are now worth much less.
"For a few months now, I've hardly been able to send anything back to my family," said Sukhrab Turakhonov from Tajikistan, who works as a pizza delivery man.
"I have four children, my eldest daughter is about to get married. We need the money."
The 43-year-old said he will wait another month or two and if nothing changes for the better, he will leave Russia.
"There's no point in working here if that means they can't send money back to their families," said Marina Melnik, who works for an association that helps migrant workers.
She said that out of the current average monthly wage of 30,000 rubles ($460), migrant workers are no longer able to send more than $200 home each month.
"It's not worth living a very harsh life in Saint Petersburg for such a meagre sum."
Russia has also increased the burden of red tape and fees, recently introducing a compulsory test on Russian language and history as well as new permits from the migration service.
The exodus has also affected the construction industry in the city, including a major project to build a stadium that will be used for football matches in the 2018 World Cup hosted by Russia, the Zenith Arena.
The head of the city government's department for construction, Mikhail Demidenko, said in January that around 20 percent of the migrant labourers working on the site had left due to the weak ruble.
He insisted this was not a problem, however, saying local people would be hired instead, as well as blue-collar workers from Belarus.
- 'It's worse back home' -
In Tajikistan, the poorest ex-Soviet country, the authorities confirmed that many migrant workers have returned from Russia.
An immigration service official, Anvar Boboyev, told AFP that the number of Tajiks now leaving to work in Russia is half that of the same period last year. In January 2014, more than 60,000 Tajiks travelled to Russia, while last month it was only around 30,000, he said.
The Tajik government has vowed to create 200,000 jobs this year but experts say it will be far too little to meet the demands of returning migrants. Between 700,000 and one million Tajiks are thought to work in Russia.
"Foreign currency earnings are falling and social tensions are rising," said political analyst Saimuddin Dustov.
Recently one Tajik man returned from Russia and killed his wife and two children, reportedly after an argument about their lack of money.
Still, experts predict that Central Asian migrants will opt to stay in Russia or will return there after taking a longer than usual holiday in their home country.
"It's only in Russia that I can earn money for my family," said Bakhtior, a Tajik man who was taking a break but plans to return to Russia. He complained that Tajikistan is riddled with nepotism and corruption.
In Saint Petersburg, Mukhabbad Asseyeva, 50, who works as a cleaner in a cafe, agreed. "I can't remember such a hard time. But I don't plan to leave. It's worse back home."