07.11.23 Review

The War and Labour Market: the number of legal migrant workers in Russia decreased during the first half of 2023, despite a severe labour shortage

The number of migrant workers with legal grounds to work in Russia decreased in the first half of 2023 by 10-15% compared to the same period in 2022 when it reached a post-pandemic peak; by the end of the first half of 2023, it stood at 2.15 million people. While this decline may not seem significant on its own, it is remarkable considering the acute labour shortage and rising wages observed in the Russian labour market during this same period. This clearly signals a decline in the attractiveness of the Russian labour market for migrant workers. However, the actual figures for labour migration are higher if we include illegal migrants and the citizens of EAEU countries who do not require work permits. According to demographers, in 2019, the actual number of migrant workers in Russia may have been around 4.5 million people (7% of the economically active population), which is 2.5 times higher than the number of officially issued work permits. What can be said for sure is that the number of Russian passports issued to foreigners in the first half of 2023 decreased to 205,000 people, approximately one-third of figures from previous years, which may be directly linked to the Russian authorities' desire to use new Russian citizens as cannon fodder.

Generally speaking, it appears that the war, the economic instability of 2022, and labour market tensions in the first half of 2023 have not had a significant impact on the scale of migration flows and labour migration to Russia. However, there is no fully reliable data on this matter.

Historical data on migration statistics in Russia are rather unreliable due to constantly changing accounting rules. The highest numbers of people arriving with the purpose of permanent residence or long-term stay were recorded in 2019 and then in 2022, as noted in a recent issue of the demographic review 'Demoskop Weekly'. According to Rosstat, in 2019, over 701,000 people entered the country, a quarter more than the previous year. However, this phenomenon can be explained by administrative factors, as new forms to report migration were introduced, and filling these out became mandatory for local authorities. This was followed by two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, which disrupted normal migration flows, both in terms of inflow and outflow, as residence permits were automatically extended for 2021. In 2022, 730,000 people were counted. In the first half of 2023, the influx of migrants to Russia decreased compared to the same period in the previous year: 282,000 people arrived in Russia, which is 15% less than arrived during the first half of 2022 (323,000). About 90% of those entering are citizens of CIS countries.

After the disruption caused by COVID, the outflow from Russia also returned to normal levels in the first half of 2023. In January-June, 202,500 people left the country. As a result, the migration surplus in Russia for January-June 2023 was 79,300 people, or 10.9 people per 10,000 of the permanent population. This is below the values for the entire period from 2011 to 2019. In the early 2010s, the migration surplus remained at a level of around 20 people per 10,000 of the permanent population per half-year.

However, this data does not provide a clear picture of the scale of labour migration to Russia (although it does include data on the relocation of workers' families). For this purpose, specialists use three sets of statistics, the latest of which are reviewed in the 'Demoskop' report. First, the Border Service of the FSB of the Russian Federation records the number of entries into Russia for work purposes (to obtain a legal permit, one must specify 'work' as the purpose of the trip). In 2019, more than 4 million people entered Russia for this purpose (4,095,000), this flow then sharply decreased during the pandemic years 2020-2021 (1,084,000 and 2,598,000, respectively), but in 2022, it returned to normal levels, although it nevertheless remained below the figures from 2019. However, many migrants make multiple entries and exits into the country per year.

The second source of statistical data is the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD): a foreigner staying in Russia for more than seven days is obliged to register for migration purposes. According to the Main Directorate for Migration Affairs of the MVD, in 2022, foreign citizens arriving for work purposes registered more than 11.8 million times. Again, this data refers to the number of registrations rather than the number of people, as migrants have to re-register when moving or leaving the country. Therefore, this data only reveals the overall dynamics and geography of migration registration. In the first half of 2022, there were 5.9 million registrations, while in the first half of 2023 there were just 3.5 million, i.e. significantly less. But here, too, the changes could be influenced by various factors: for example, migrants this year may have been finding longer-term employment, which corresponds with labour market shortages. Moreover, 41% of all registrations took place in Moscow (26%) and the Moscow region (15%), with an additional 13% in St. Petersburg and its surrounding area. Citizens of Uzbekistan take first place within the registration statistics, with 2.915 million Uzbek citizens registered in the first half of 2022 and 1.67 million in the first half of 2023. Thus, they occupy about 50% of all registrations. Citizens of Tajikistan follow, accounting for around 30% of all registrations.

According to the official statistics provided by Rosstat, they keep records of legally obtained grounds for work, such as permits and work patents. In 2018-2019, Russia had around 1.8 million legal migrant workers, with around 100,000 of these holding work permits and approximately 1.7 million holding patents. By the first quarter of 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these numbers had dropped by roughly half, but then saw a rapid increase, reaching nearly 2.4 million in the first quarter of 2022. After the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the number of legal migrant workers saw a slight decrease, and by the first quarter of 2023, Russia had 1.96 million migrants with patents and 70,000 with work permits, meaning their numbers had seen a decrease of 15% compared to the first quarter of 2022. However, operational data for January-June 2023 indicates that, by the end of the first half of the year, the number of legally employed workers had increased by approximately 130,000, reaching 2.16 million.

According to Rosstat's records, since 2008, legally employed foreigners have made up approximately 3% of the country’s entire labour force, with a significant decrease only witnessed during the pandemic. However, demographers believe that the actual number of foreign labourers in Russia may be about twice as high, as citizens of the EAEU (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan) can work in Russia without obtaining permits, and some foreign nationals work in Russia illegally. As a result, by some estimates, the proportion of migrant workers in the economy may have been 7-8% in 2007-2011, rising to 9-11% in 2012-2014, and reaching 4.5 million people in 2019, which is 7% of the country’s total economically active population. Thus, by these accounts, the actual number of migrant workers was roughly 2.5 times higher than the number of legally employed migrants.

If we rely on official data, we can say that the number of migrant registrations in the first half of 2023 decreased by a significant 40%, while the number of those who obtained legal work permits and patents has decreased by 10-15%. The decline in the number of those who received legal permission is not as significant, but it appears surprising given the acute labour shortage in Russia during that same period, with the labour force decreasing by between half a million and a million workers (as a result of emigration and mobilisation) alongside increasing wages.

What can be said for sure is that the number of Russian passports issued to foreigners in the first half of 2023 has decreased sharply compared to previous years, totaling 205,000 people, down from 302,000 in the first half of 2020, 352,000 in the first half of 2021, and 288,000 in the first half of 2022. On average, as ‘Demoskop’ reports, over the past three years, 314,000 people obtained Russian citizenship in the first half of the year, which is a third less than reported in the first half of 2023. This effect may be directly linked to the war and the Russian authorities' intention to shift the burden of military service onto new Russian citizens.