SAINT PETERSBURG — 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.
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.