Ukraine’s trapped migrant workers look for roads back to Europe

KYIV — Across Europe, lockdown measures to contain the coronavirus pandemic have walled countries off from the foreign labor on which they typically rely, leaving them scrambling to find workers to harvest fruit and vegetables.

One major source of that labor, Ukraine, is not keen on filling that gap.

In mid-March, the government urged all foreign workers to return home before borders closed and they became stranded away from their families. An estimated 2 million Ukrainians who were making a living in Europe and hurried back now find themselves stranded at home, cut off from their source of revenue as authorities enforce strict new rules about who is allowed out of the country.

The move is not just about coronavirus. It’s part of a broader policy to stop the drain of Ukrainian labor and talent abroad.

“We want to try to keep people in Ukraine, and will make every effort to do so,” Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal told Ukrainian media in late April. “There’s plenty of work in Ukraine too.”

The Ukrainian government will apparently let me go, they say they aren’t keeping anyone here, but at the same time I understand that I can’t go because I haven’t got the documents to show I’m working” — Vyacheslav, Ukrainian migrant worker

Vyacheslav, 29, was working in the Czech Republic when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced the lockdown and urged citizens to return before the borders closed for all passenger transport. When his train ticket, and then a replacement plane ticket were canceled, he got a lift home via Austria and Hungary, chasing border crossings that were still open.

Today, like many who rushed home, he’s not happy to be back in his village of Nyzhne Selishche, but finds himself with dwindling options to get back to work outside Ukraine.

“Everyone’s sitting at home waiting,” he said. “I can’t go back. The Ukrainian government will apparently let me go, they say they aren’t keeping anyone here, but at the same time I understand that I can’t go because I haven’t got the documents to show I’m working.”

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Ukrainians make up the largest group of labor migrants in the EU, with the biggest numbers in Poland, Italy and the Czech Republic. They also send the most money home. According to the World Bank, 2019 remittances were the highest in Europe at nearly $16 billion — 10 percent of Ukrainian GDP. In western Ukraine, where Vyacheslav is from, migrant workers are thought of as a valuable resource; one village even erected a monument honoring zarobitchany, as they are called in Ukrainian.

Zelenskiy sees it differently. The comedian-turned-politician made the return and integration of the estimated 4 million Ukrainians who work abroad a pillar of his presidency, stating in his inaugural speech last year that “each of us is a migrant worker — the one who couldn’t find himself at home,” and inviting Ukrainians to “come to Ukraine not to visit, but to return home.”

His government has introduced schemes to entice workers to stay, such as assistance for small and medium businesses and a large-scale construction program to create jobs. But Ukrainian salaries remain among the lowest in Europe, and corruption is endemic. The job market is precarious, something the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic risks aggravating.

If Ukraine so far has fared reasonably well in the epidemic — it has confirmed 644 deaths and 21,500 infections — lockdown measures that ground life to a halt have left their mark on employment. More than 2 million people have lost their jobs, are on temporary forced leave or in hidden unemployment, according to Shmyhal.

Workers will keep looking for work in Europe because they can earn 10 times as much as they would in Ukraine and the work is more reliable, according to Vyacheslav. “They know they have work there today and tomorrow, whereas at home they are always looking and looking after every short job.”

In the midst of the pandemic, the lure of better-paying work is clearly still high. Recruitment company Gremi Personal, which organizes work for Ukrainians in Poland, has had over 4,000 calls to its hotline since early April, according to founder Evgenij Kirichenko. Some 67 percent of Ukrainians who left Poland because of the quarantine measures now want to go back, he said.

But with land borders still closed, companies like Kirichenko’s are in a bind. In April, charter flights of Ukrainian workers to Finland and the U.K. were prevented from taking off by the Ukrainian border guard. One flight was refused permission to take off for nine hours while passengers who had come from all around the country with legal agreements to work on British farms milled about the airport, with little respect for social distancing.

The incident was a public relations disaster. The government quickly scrambled to clarify its position: Workers are permitted to leave the country, but only if they can prove they have a minimum three-month contract, guaranteed medical insurance (covering COVID-19), accommodation and organized transport there and back.

“No one is prohibiting the departure of seasonal workers from Ukraine, but the government seeks to protect both workers themselves and citizens who will come in contact with them upon their return,” the deputy prime minister’s Office for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration — which is responsible for coordinating organized transit of workers — said in written comments to POLITICO.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Brussels | Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images

The conditions placed on the workers’ right to leave the country — which critics say contradict the constitution — are justified by legislation on infectious diseases to prevent the spread of the virus, according to the deputy prime minister’s office.

The result is that while workers are, on paper, free to travel abroad, most of them are forced to stay home, as the new criteria are difficult to meet. Most people are used to making their own travel arrangements there and back; some have work contracts that are shorter than three months or don’t include accommodation. Many people, like Vyacheslav, worked without contracts at all.

The government’s new regulation “strongly affects people’s rights to freedom of movement and right to leave the country,” said Pavlo Kravchuk, communications manager for the Ukrainian civic organization Europe Without Barriers. “This is perceived as an assault and causes strong mistrust of government attempts to regulate the situation.”

Gremi Personal says the company is following the new rules and ensuring its clients meet the criteria for contracts and insurance set by the government. Last week, its first charter flight of 178 workers left for Poland, where they will spend the first two weeks in quarantine. Other companies have organized charters of several hundred workers to Germany and Austria, with flights to Finland, Denmark, Norway and the Czech Republic also under discussion, according to the deputy prime minister’s office.

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Back in western Ukraine, a green light for certain officially sanctioned flights won’t help Vyacheslav or anyone he knows.

Vyacheslav found his job in a pharmaceuticals warehouse in Prague via a long-established network of middlemen and women who organize short-term work for western Ukrainian migrant workers. The “clients” arrange accommodation and take a percentage of the worker’s salary, which is paid in cash to avoid tax both in the country where they work and back home.

Workers don’t sign contracts, nor do they want to. “They don’t want to be tied down,” said Vyacheslav.

Most people go for regular short-term jobs, often staying for less than the three months allowed under the visa-free regime introduced by the EU in 2017 (only Poland allows Ukrainians to work legally during this period).

Seasonal workers wait for a flight from Kyiv to Finland | Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images

Migrant workers have long been hostile to the idea of contributing to Ukraine via state coffers, feeling they get nothing in return. “They say they work in a foreign country and Ukraine does nothing to provide for them, so why should they pay taxes?” said Vyacheslav.

The state attitude has traditionally been equally negative, perceiving labor migration only as a threat in terms of lost workforce, taxes and population.

Kravchuk of Europe Without Barriers said he hopes the lockdown will prove to be an opportunity for authorities to rethink that attitude and win over workers by protecting their rights and working conditions both at home and abroad.

For now, however, the key preoccupation of migrant workers in western Ukraine is how to circumvent the new barriers to their mobility. On social media channels, they’re setting up chains of cars to carry them from border to border or hitching rides with long-distance truck drivers. Waiting out a return to normal isn’t an option — quarantine or no quarantine.

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