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June 1, 2003 by AK

Passing by a construction site in the US and seeing mostly Mexican-looking workers — presumably fresh immigrants — I used to wonder what keeps native-born Americans away from construction jobs. I can come up with three obvious choices. Perhaps Mexicans are paid so miserably (e.g. as English non-speakers in a precarious legal status) that the native-born won’t even think about these jobs. Perhaps even at a minimim wage, Americans would rather stay on welfare. Or — unbelievable as it sounds — perhaps labor mobility is getting low in America?

Now when I see guest workers at a construction site in Moscow or in the country-house area around the city, what am I supposed to think? Their legal status is not necessarily tenuous; CIS citizens can legally get a work permit in Russia. Whether it pays off to get a legal status, I have no idea. (Il)legal status is almost certainly not as major a factor in Russia as in the USA; therefore, it should not depress guest workers’ wages as much. Is it possible to find Russian workers to fill these jobs? Probably yes, but not always locally. Moscow has long experienced a shortage of construction and industrial workers; the living standard in the capital is much higher than both in Russian and Ukrainian provinces (to say nothing of Central Asia); there is a large segment of semi-skilled but nearly unemployable Muscovites (typically alcoholics who react to monetary stimuli in unorthodox ways); and so on. However, while it is understandable while Central Asians take these jobs — local dictators make sure to keep their ordinary subjects in misery — even Moldovans’ presence is logical (Moldova is a democratic but poor country albeit with a lot of potential for development), — still it’s not really clear while Ukrainian workers in Moscow far outnumber migrant workers from other regions of Russia. This must have to do with labor mobility.


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