Prisoners or Migrants?

Prisoners or Migrants?


Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) director Alexander Kalashnikov suggested replacing migrant workers with convicts at many construction and industrial sites.

About 188,000 of 482,000 prisoners are currently eligible for correctional labor, Kalashnikov said in connection with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plans to attract more migrants to workforce shortage areas, which he discussed with the Tajikistan and Uzbekistan leaders.


The Russian Empire practiced forced labor for convicts for centuries sending them to work at mines or factories. Railroad construction started gaining momentum in Russia at the turn of the 19th century and convicts were used in big numbers in such projects.


According to historians, the Amur Railroad was the Russian Empire’s largest construction project where prison labor was used; 5,000 convicts were involved in it as of 1911. The Soviet Union vigorously continued this practice. Many would promptly associate it with the Gulag and Stalin camps, but although prisoners of that era had indeed built a lot, the post-Stalin correctional labor system was way different.

In the 1960s and 1980s, prisoners in correctional labor colonies were required to work in manufacturing. They were mostly engaged in the construction of various chemical enterprises where they also had to work. Despite health hazards, many sought to land a job there because it gave them some freedom.

The 21st century is no exception

In recent history, the idea of broader use of prison labor to replace part of migrants was first proposed by Russian human rights activists at the Kremlin's Civic Forum in 2001.

In 2009, Alexander Reimer, the former chief of the Federal Penitentiary Service of Russia (FSIN,) who later was sentenced to eight years for embezzlement suggested organizing penal settlements at large construction sites or in cities with large industrial enterprises that required unskilled labor.

In 2014, FSIN deputy head Oleg Korshunov (currently serving a sentence for fraud and embezzlement), suggested that about 200 prisoners be involved in the pre-Olympic beautification of Sochi and that prisoners be sent to the construction of the bridge across the Kerch Strait from nearby penal colonies.

The Krasnoyarsk territory set up urban settlement colonies more than 10 years ago where hundreds of inmates replaced migrants in municipal services and landscaping.

“We are very interested in big investment projects that can provide jobs for 1,000 or more people sentenced to community work,” said Minister of Justice Konstantin Chuichenko. “At the moment 8,000 jobs have been created where inmates could work but this is not enough.”

Who are these guys?

First of all, they are not exactly prisoners. They are the offenders whose sentences can be converted to hours of community work.

Eva Merkacheva, a member of the Public Monitoring Commission (PMC) in Moscow, commented on the prison labor situation. “We have compulsory labor,” she said. “This is an alternative method” of punishment applied to quite a large number of people. I have never heard a convict saying “I don't need community service. I'd rather go to prison.” They are glad that they were given this type of punishment. Many regions have already set up correctional centers.”

What prisoners think about the joyful prospects of community service

As usual, opinions differ. Whereas some prefer odd jobbing and a bit of freedom to staying behind bars, there are those who regret the transfer to community service.

“The regulations at the correctional centers are not easier. The psychological pressure on a convict there is much more severe than in prison. For example, you are allowed three long visits per year in a colony, but the law does not regulate this issue for a correctional center. A convict applies for a visit to a store or to the doctor, or for a meeting, and the correctional center chief approves or rejects the application. He does not always grant these requests so you have far fewer rights than in the colony,” said prisoner Ilya Erekhinsky.

Another problem is that the time that must be served to be eligible for parole is reset to zero when one is transferred to a correctional center, and the countdown starts all over again.

“Everybody knows about the zeroing out. Many women who still do community work say that their fellow prisoners were released on parole long ago. People are forced to serve a sentence from soup to nuts at community service centers,” said Olesya Berezhnaya, convicted for fraud.

Andrei Babushkin, a member of the Ministry of Justice workgroup on internal regulations, said: “Correctional labor will be a successful form of punishment when we have public control over detention facilities in the first place. Secondly, remuneration to the convicts will be not less than 50% of their earnings. Thirdly, parole eligibility period has to start from the moment of a person's arrest, not from the moment of transfer from the colony to correctional center.”

Who benefits from the prisoner-migrant switch?

The use of migrants’ labor is becoming increasingly unprofitable. For example, in the north of Russia, where gold mining, gas, and oil companies operate, charter flights have to be booked to bring another part of rotational workers from neighboring countries. A company pays not only for travel, board, and lodging, but also for medical insurance policies and, for the last year, also for COVID-19 PCR tests.

These expenses are considerable. Nornickel or Gazprom have already realized that taking prisoners for shift work instead of migrants is cheaper since part of the costs can be shared with FSIN.

However, there is one problem. A convict serves a sentence in the region where he lives. This is stipulated by the Criminal Code of Russia. In other words, a person who has stolen a cell phone or a petty hooligan who kicked up a row without any serious consequences for the victims cannot be sent to Magadan mines or the Power of Siberia gas pipeline. At least, not yet.

If Kalashnikov's initiative is supported, these centers will have to be opened at gold mines and construction sites. Next, they will face the problem of finding people with the right skills. The construction sites need specialists such as crane operators, bulldozer drivers, concrete workers, welders, bricklayers, etc. As the saying goes, dig hard enough, and you can find dirt on anyone.

Migrants are against

Head of the Federation of Migrants of Russia (FMR) Vadim Kozhenov criticized Alexander Kalashnikov's proposal to use prisoners in sectors where migrant workers are usually employed.

Kozhenov believes that prisoners are not motivated because “they are fed and washed for free and have a place to sleep.”

“Send a message to outer space, ask aliens to come and do all the work that the head of the Federal Penitentiary Service plans. To my thinking, it would be more realistic,” he said.

According to Kozhenov, the migrants are “quite qualified” and “everyone is at their place.” To enlist the prisoners for work, FSIN will have to “somehow organize them” and “figure out who is a bricklayer, who is a plasterer, and who is a carpenter,” he said.

Human rights activist Andrei Babushkin disagrees: “Russia needs 12 million migrant workers. Every year six million migrants come to Russia for work but even this number is insufficient in the labor market; 188,000 convicts won't be able to compete with them. They will supplement the migrants, but they won't be able to fully replace them.

Russians are both for and against

The survey among the Russians shows that 21% of those who support prison labor believe that it will compensate the damages caused to the victims. Another 21% of the respondents said that the prisoners would work off their crimes while 15% hope that convicts would benefit the society. According to 13% of those polled, prisoners will reduce the load on the state budget; 10% believe that work will help convicts mend their ways and another 10% said that prisoners would earn money and help their families.

Opponents of prison labor claim that inmates must be isolated from society (17%), they would work badly (13%), they are dangerous (12%), it would be a backlash to the times of GULAG (12%) and prisoners would take away jobs (9%). At the same time, 9% of the opponents of prison labor said that the issue depended on the crime for which a person was imprisoned.

Opinions of human rights activists

“Indeed, Russia does not have enough capable hands due to the deflux of migrants, national traditions and depopulation. It is experiencing shortages of both blue-collar and white-collar workers. Of course, if you have a labor force the opportunities for voluntary and conscious labor should be used. If you have a stash and need money for one reason or another, you will take out your stash and use it,” said Georgy Kleiner, deputy head of research at the Central Economics and Mathematics Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

“Everything looks perfect on paper, but they forgot about other problems,” said Vladimir Osechkin, a founder of the human rights project. “The replacement of migrants by prisoners will work out if labor contracts are signed with them and wages are paid at market rates. So, they will be able to pay the damages as ruled by the courts, save money for the future, help their children, parents, and so on. If the employers pay the prisoners the minimum wage and increase the production rate by 5-10 times, it will be a gulag of the 21st century.”

Deputy chairman of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia Alexander Shershukov explained that migrants have taken vacancies mainly in construction and housing services because they accept lower wages and worse working conditions. At the moment, according to official statistics, there are about four million unemployed in the country. In these circumstances, it would be more reasonable to offer vacated positions to law-abiders and raise their wages instead of giving these jobs to prisoners.

Shershukov says that the same principle applies to migrants and prison labor. A prisoner will definitely get a lower wage than a free citizen, and he will have fewer demands on working conditions.

To be or not to be

An analysis of the recent events shows that Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin made a tactical move as he completed the topic of migrants after Russia Day [which commemorates the adoption of the Declaration of State Sovereignty of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic on 12 June 1990.] thus outplaying the Interior Ministry.

Security officials advocated a tougher migration policy. They reasonably pointed out the growth in ethnic crimes. However, Khusnullin very smartly turned attention to the shortage of workers and urged the Russian President to extend the deadline for a temporary (illegal) stay of migrants in the country until September 30th.

At the same time, Khusnullin ridiculed the Ministry of Justice’s idea that convicts would “upturn the virgin lands.” He reminded that migrants with no rights were “the best friends” of the developers. The Federal Penitentiary Service was also criticized. Khusnullin advised the agency to deal with its internal problems first.

On top of that, he won over to his side Industry and Trade Minister Denis Manturov, who said on the sidelines of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum that the Ministry saw no need to attract the prisoners to work at enterprises subordinate to his Ministry.

“For this purpose, we have a highly qualified workforce [in these sectors,] where there is no shortage today. I mean that our enterprises are not facing this task,” Manturov said.

As the saying runs, render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's. In other words, prisoners should stay in prisons and migrants should work. As the PZDC Telegram channel wrote, they have one thing in common: there is no shortage of workers in Russia, only a shortage of paid work. Workers, who demand decent wages, not the crumbs from a rich man's table, as is the custom today, are simply not needed. They do not fit into the existing business model. That is why there will be some hesitation as to how to build the second branch of BAM because the pot has already been split. Bidding contests and sums of money have been negotiated. There is almost nothing left for the construction, to be more precise, for labor remuneration.

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