Almost the largest shopping and entertainment center in Kyiv has grown in the capital’s Vinogradar district. Retroville – as it is called – is so large that it is divided into four parts with separate entrances and exits. But now only one quarter of it works, where only the giant Novus supermarket feels comfortable. The rest of the tenants are hesitant and almost reluctant to occupy empty space. It is interesting to talk to them “about life”, that is, about work and about money.
A whole army of unemployed, they say, is now circling around Retroville. Someone is happy to get a job as a seller, someone as a coach in the not yet opened Sportlife gym. Someone is looking for a job as a barista or a waiter in unknown restaurants and coffee houses, while someone else will agree to low-skilled earnings, in particular cleaning. However, the business is in no hurry to hire staff: it is not known what will happen in the fall. If the second wave of coronavirus comes along with strict quarantine, the owners of establishments will suffer considerable losses.
They believe in quarantine, but they don’t believe in coronavirus. They don’t trust the government and doctors. They readily retell the gossip that the medics are “completing” statistics on Covid-19, especially in villages and small towns, in order to receive additional payments for risk. And the government, they say, has its own reason – to postpone local elections. From all this, the mood of the workers is not very good. And meanwhile they have to pay checks and feed the families…
President Poroshenko tried to sew the nation with an immaterial “needle”. But “army, language and faith” did not work. President Zelensky tried to work without pathos and won the race a year ago thanks to specifics, which, however, border on populism. Zelensky was the first Ukrainian head of state to raise the topic of emigration in his inaugural speech. Although this phenomenon flourished in lush color precisely under Poroshenko. It blossomed and even penetrated into popular culture.
Zelensky, having come to power, had the ambitious goal of returning all the birds to their nests. “There are 65 million Ukrainians all over the world. And our state really needs you: your talents, mental values. We really want you to return home. We also want those who give up and plan to leave Ukraine to stay,” said the President in December 2019, presenting the Come Back and Stay program.
And when, because of the coronavirus and quarantine, the Ukrainians began a “reverse” movement home, the head of state was sincerely happy about this. “This is good news, even if the circumstances of such a return are not the most pleasant … We must do everything and keep these people … Thousands of kilometers of new roads and infrastructure facilities will give us the necessary impetus for economic development, and new jobs will be created,” promised Zelensky in a video message dated April 1.
But it was not so successful. How many migrant workers returned is unknown. Prime Minister Denys Shmygal constantly calls the figure of 2 million, but neither border guards nor specialized experts can confirm it. Other data is also unknown: how many Ukrainians actually left in the period from 1991 to 2020? Or at least over the past few years?
Such statistics are not available for two reasons. First, it is unprofitable to conduct it and publish because of the obvious reputation losses. Secondly, the calculation of migrant workers is complicated by the fact that a significant part of them (from 40 to 60%) work abroad illegally. Therefore, the numbers are very different. Thus, according to the information of the domestic Ministry of Foreign Affairs, about 3.2 million Ukrainians are constantly working abroad.
But according to the estimates of the former Minister of Social Policy Andriy Reva, 7-9 million citizens periodically leave for work abroad. The expert Andriy Blinov believes that the number of Ukrainian guest workers in the EU and Russia ranges from 3 to 7 million, and the lion’s share of them goes to seasonal work.
And in any case, those who returned to Ukraine with the beginning of quarantine make up the overwhelming minority of those who remained in part-time jobs. For example, in Poland there was a figure of 4% – that is how many Ukrainians decided to return home. According to other data, there were 10% of them, but this is already the maximum. And even then, they returned solely because of the expired work visa.
After a brainstorming session, a “magnet” was created in the team, which was supposed to hold guest workers in the country. The prime minister announced a new support program: jobs in the field of road construction and landscaping. For laying asphalt or planting trees, the head of government promised to pay from 6 to 8 thousand UAH (200 – 300 USD) per month. Experienced guest workers only laughed: you can earn 200 euros in the West in a much shorter time. Shmygal was advised to work on physically exhausting job himself for such a meager amount, and then tell the people if he liked this option.
Therefore, those wishing to return to normal earnings were not even stopped by quarantine. Just a couple of weeks after it began, a discussion started on Internet forums of how to leave the country even despite the closed borders? The impatience of workers was fueled by the fact that due to the lockdown, European farmers were losing crops, and therefore, they were in dire need of labor.
The Ukrainian government first decided to take a principled position and not to let anyone go anywhere. Denys Shmygal said on April 22 that he was not negotiating the “removal of people” either on an official or an unofficial level.
However, the very next day, with the consent of the Foreign Ministry, 200 Ukrainian labor migrants flew to Finland on a charter flight organized at the request of Finnish farmers. In total, Finland wanted to import 14,000 seasonal workers this spring, Estonian Ambassador told the press (it was the Estonian company that operated the flight): “There were long negotiations, and, in the end, Finland managed to persuade Ukraine.”
But, when the first batch of guest workers was sent to Finland, Ukraine changed its mind again. “In the context of the spread of a pandemic, any travel means putting people at risk of disease, especially when traveling by plane,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said at a briefing.
The next scandal broke out exactly one week later – on April 29. On that day, the State Aviation Service first canceled the flight of the plane with the Ukrainians on board to the UK, but nine hours later, when the discussion of the event became public, it nevertheless allowed it. And again, Kuleba commented on the situation, noting that all these are temporary restrictions, the purpose of which is to protect citizens of Ukraine from infection with Covid-19, including on the way to their destinations.
Soon, the government announced a new concept. Ukraine is ready to help organize flights for seasonal workers if their employment is legal, Denys Shmygal wrote on his Telegram channel. Conditions for transportation are legal employment of Ukrainians for a period of three months in compliance with all social guarantees and good working conditions.
The crowd at the border
However, Ukrainians, accustomed to the fact that the rescue of the drowning is the work of the drowning themselves, did not wait for permission from Shmygal. According to the State Border Service, up to one million people left Ukraine in March (that is, in the midst of quarantine). As for Poland, everyone migrated there by hook or by crook. For example, the following scheme has become popular. Guest workers hired a bus to the Polish border, crossed it in small groups in passenger cars, and on the Polish side they all gathered together and went to their destination on another bus.
But the real madness began towards the end of May. The Ternopolyane website described how queues of people wishing to cross the Polish border line up at the Shegyni checkpoint. People were not afraid of either standing on their feet (in some places for up to 12 hours in a row), or the need to quarantine on the Polish side.
“In the Internet, Ukrainians share information when it is better to cross the border, at what time, are they allowed to go with children, and is a 14-day observation required for everyone. According to the data that we managed to collect, 14 days of observation are required for all, except for those who work in the field, there the police come and check every day. When crossing, you need to have a valid foreign passport, insurance and another 400 zlotys; there must also be a quarantine address where you will stay on self-isolation for 14 days, and if you have a seasonal visa, then self-isolation is not needed. For Ukrainians with children under three years old – there is a pass without a common queue,” informed the website.
The shortage of personnel in Poland often forced employers to take on both transport and quarantine costs. They have already calculated the threats to the economy from the outflow of labor migrants, including Ukrainians, who create about 7% of Polish GDP. Therefore, they promptly applied measures that would encourage employees to stay. For example, Poland has recently developed a special package of legislative changes called “Anti-crisis shield”.
Its essence is that, since during quarantine, workers cannot go home and open new work visas for themselves, Poland automatically extended the period of stay for foreign workers until the end of the epidemic, plus an additional one month. Also, in Poland, Ukrainian migrants can count on not only the extension of the period of stay, but also on assistance in paperwork. So, now the employees have the opportunity to obtain a residence permit for 3 years absolutely free.
The largest Polish labor agency, EWL Group, reports. Employees from Ukraine who are already in Poland on the basis of visas, or those who entered with biometric passports, can issue a “residence card” free of charge. Citizens of Ukraine only have to pay the state fee for filing an application and a power of attorney (which is 507 zlotys), and the agency takes over all the administrative work on the preparation of documents.
Deep into the Wild West
But for many guest workers, Poland is far from the final destination. Some of them go further – to the Czech Republic or Hungary. There are closed forums for dedicated people, where it is explained how to find a job in Germany. Although in this case we are talking about illegal stay. The main thing, say such forums, is to have the Pole’s card in your pocket. With it, you can allegedly wade further and further to the West.
Whether this is true or not is unknown. However, the Polish Foreign Ministry reports that over the past six months, almost 3 thousand Ukrainian citizens have applied for a Pole’s card. And this is still very little, but the modest figure is explained by the lockdown. Meanwhile, Germany has its own analogue of the Pole’s card – the so-called Blue Card, which also gives a number of preferences. In particular, the right to temporary residence in any EU country. Deutsche Welle informs that Ukraine is in the top 10 countries, which citizens most often apply for the Blue Card.
All this makes migration from Ukraine quite an attractive (or at least acceptable) option for many people.
And finally, a few more facts and figures. According to a survey of the National Bank, 23% of enterprises are already planning to lay off staff. And this means that the supply of free hands on the Ukrainian labor market will grow even without taking into account the workers.
In addition, salary cuts are expected. This means that the socio-economic situation in Ukraine will deteriorate much faster and more dramatic than in Poland. Therefore, labor migration will only grow.