Made in Belarus. By the Chinese
In the first six months of 2016, according to the Ministry of Interior 4,076 Chinese labour migrants entered Belarus. They now outnumber all other nationalities, including Ukrainians, who peaked at 3,334.
The Belarusian government maintains a firm grip on the labour market, and strictly regulates the number of work permits available to foreigners.
While Belarus attempts to re-engage with the West after the removal of sanctions and Russian investments continue to dwindle, Chinese investors are capitalising on Belarusian projects.
More and more Chinese workers are appearing in the streets of Minsk and other cities. Belarusians wonder what brings them here, what jobs they have, and most importantly, whether they are staying or moving on.
Unlike Europe, Belarus has thus far been spared the influx of refugees and asylum seekers from the Middle East. However, as the number of jobs decreases, and Belarusians turn elsewhere in search of employment, they find themselves competing with imported labour as well.
Chinese Labour Migration in Numbers
According to the Ministry of the Interior, in 2015 Belarus admitted almost 32,000 workers. Among them almost half, or 14,000 people, came from war-torn neighbouring Ukraine, and another 7,225 from China. In 2016, as the situation in Eastern Ukraine stabilised to a certain degree, the number of Ukrainian workers decreased, while the Chinese labour force presence increased.
Data from the Ministry of the Interior also informs us that the majority among the 4,076 labour migrants works manual jobs. Only 888 among them are “trained specialists” according to the Ministry’s definition, and another 57 hold managerial position. 43 found employment in the service industry. Apparently, there is a demand for foreign non-skilled labour force in the Belarusian market.
This may come as a surprise to local Belarusian workers. Many have been struggling to find employment in Belarus, as the number of job cuts in industry rose throughout 2015 and 2016 due to the ongoing economic crises in Belarus and Russia. As Belarusians encounter more and more Chinese workers in the streets of Minsk and other cities, they might find themselves wondering what jobs they have, and which industries they work for.
According to a recent interview published by the official news agency belta.by during the president's visit to the Mahileu Lift Plant in July 2016, President Lukashenka remarked that Belarusian workers should be more proactive and flexible in looking for jobs, “If there is no work in Mahileu, then there should be some in Babruisk, Minsk, Hrodna, Svetlagorsk, or Dobrush.” Belarusian workers now face not only internal, but external competition as well.
Chinese Labour Migration in Faces and Stories
The sleepy provincial town of Dobrush, home to 18,000 residents, saw a sudden increase in population when local authorities approved the construction of a cardboard factory in 2015. The Chinese investor and main contractor imported 1,000 Chinese workers, a sizable addition to the existing population. They certainly stand out among the rest of the native Dobrush population.
Their presence might have remained unnoticed had a number of Chinese workers not protested. They accused their bosses of mistreatment and marched to Homyel (about 30 km) demanding justice. The situation was allegedly resolved through negotiation but according to many sources, including Radio Liberty in Belarus, many Belarusians felt impressed by their courage and sympathised with the Chinese workers as they insisted on fair pay.
Most Chinese workers come for a short span of time, work on construction sites in Belarus, and head back home. The case of the Chinese workers in Dobrush suggests that many of them are exploited and abused by their Chinese employers. Lack of transparency and oversight on the Belarusian side jeopardises their status and labour rights.
But some stay. And to a certain degree, they successfully integrate into otherwise very homogenous Belarusian society. According to the 2009 National Census, almost 84% of people in Belarus identify as Belarusians, followed by another 13% of Russians, Poles, and Ukrainians. In other words Belarus is 97% white.
Wan Syaomun has lived in Belarus since 1999. According to Deutsche Welle she came to study at a Belarusian university when she was 17, later got married, and stayed. Belarus became home. She now owns a translation agency. Her story amplifies the lack of transparency and integration for short-term labour migrants from China.
Short-term Manual Labour Migrants
Belarus attracts short-term manual labour migrants from China, Ukraine and Turkey. And although labour is cheap in Belarus, foreign investors prefer to bring their own labour. One of the reasons lies precisely in the comparative ease of controlling foreigners. For now it seems that Belarus has no competitive advantages in attracting and retaining high-skilled foreign labour. Some experts say that it should instead focus on retaining its own promising individuals who are keen to emigrate.
According to data from the Ministry of the Interior, for every Belarusian leaving the country in search of employment abroad, six foreigners enter the country securing jobs. This 1 to 6 ratio stems from official statistics, which reflect only those Belarusians who chose to provide a signed contract to the Ministry of the Interior before leaving to work abroad.
According to Ejednevnik.by, a Belarusian news outlet, this data distorts the real picture and the true ratio should be 3 to 1 in reverse. Other estimates suggest that around 100,000 Belarusians leave the country seeking employment abroad, mostly in Russia, and only around 30,000 migrant workers enter Belarus annually. The outflow of labour force from Belarus could deplete the national talent pool.
Belarus failed to come up with reliable ways of retaining local talent, wealthy Belarusians send their children to study and stay on in Western Europe or North America.
On the other hand, in times of economic crisis, the remittances wired by Belarusians working abroad to their families have become a strong stabilisation factor for private households as well as the national economy. According to the World Bank such remittances contributed 2% to the Belarusian GDP in 2014.
As Belarus failed to come up with reliable ways of retaining local talent, many wealthy Belarusians choose to send their children to study abroad, and encourage them to find ways to stay on in Western Europe or North America. Meanwhile, the Belarusian government seems to have focused on regulating the inflow of foreign labour force by adhering to a non-transparent system of labour permits granted to chosen investors, mostly from China and Turkey.
This also places Belarus into a grey zone when it comes to labour code regulations. If investors do not hold up their end of an agreement with imported workers, Belarus has little to no leverage with them. While the strategy of importing temporary labour force may be a short-term solution to attract foreign investments, in the long term Belarus should identify more sustainable and modern ways of regulating its labour force markets.