International Migration and Labour Turnover: The case of the
construction sector in Russia and Italy
Claudio Morrison, Middlesex Business School
Devi Sacchetto, Sociology, Padua University
Olga Cretu, Middlesex Business School
Scholarship on international migration has shown how structural features of the global
capitalist economy contribute to labour mobility. This paper looks into labour migrants’
recruitment and employment systems to identify their forms of resistance. The study is based on
qualitative research involving workers from Moldova and Ukraine working in the Russian and
Italian construction sector. Fieldwork has been carried out in Russia, Italy and Moldova.
Overcoming methodological nationalism, this study recognises transnational spaces as the new
terrain where antagonistic industrial relations are rearticulated. Labour turnover is posited as
key explanatory factor and understood not simply as the outcome of capital recruitment
strategies but also as workers’ agency.
Labour migration has so far been explained by reference to wage differentials, the
relative ease or difficulty of relocating to another country and the absence or presence of
support networks (Faist 2000, Massey et al. 1998, Piore 1979, Portes 1996). We understand
this phenomenon in relation to capital historical need to constantly expand its socio-
geographical areas of recruitment to escape industrial conflict and obviate to labour turnover
(Gambino, Sacchetto 2009). High levels of turnover occur in workplaces characterised by
hazardous working conditions, repetitive tasks and lack of autonomy in industries such as
agriculture, construction and domestic labour (Moulier-Boutang 2002, MES 2000, Silver 2003,
Stalker 2000). This research explores causal relationships between such work regimes in the
construction sector and labour migration in contemporary Europe. Findings suggest that high
levels of labour turnover exist at the crossroad between workers’ exit and exhaustion in an
industry which consumes a constantly expanded army of migrant labour. Migrants display a
high level of awareness and a diverse range of strategies.
Migration and labour turnover under capitalism
In the 1990s Europe has experience the emergence of a complex migration system from
and within Eastern and central European countries, characterised by wide variations in terms of
duration and trajectories (Kaczmarczyk and Okólski 2005). Theoretical tools applied to the
subject are still affected by the fragmentation of different lines of enquiries along disciplinary
boundaries (Massey 1993), limiting both their spatial and explanatory breadth.
Macro level studies of international migration have firmly located international
migration within the structure of global economic systems and highlighted the central role of
the state and capital (Amin, 1974; Wallerstein, 1982; Castles and Miller, 1993). Central to such
approaches is the concept of labour reserve army (Castles and Kosack 1973): migrant workers
escapes exploitative conditions in the periphery only to end up serving as low cost labour in
destination countries (Wallerstein 1982). Yet structural approaches fail to account for workers’
agency (Sayad 2002).
Several lines of enquiry locate causal factors of migration closer to migrant’s
experiences. The social capital approach explains migration options in the interconnection
between local and household economies (Massey 1990, Goldring e Durang 1994). Networks
are seen to promote migration by providing a constantly expanding social infrastructure to
potential migrants. The labour market segmentation approach has identified informal
recruitment channels as a key mechanism pushing migrants into low-status jobs (Piore 1979;
Fellini et al. 2003, 2007; Krings et al. 2011). Yet its main concern rests with integration, hence
the pre-eminent focus on national context and actors. Lillie and Greer (2007) already observed
that actor’s strategies in the European construction sector can only be fully appreciated by
recognising the internationalised nature of the reference labour market. Eastern European
workers have elected ‘exit’ strategies as their primary form of resistance to post-1989
restructuring (Meardi 2007). Various combinations of informal and institutionalised forms of
coercion and inferiorisation minimise the potential for collective, organised resistance. This
study explores the potentials for migrant labour strategies to confront these mechanisms.
The construction sector represents a key testing ground for these arguments because
construction businesses need constantly sourcing cheap labour from ‘low-wage’ areas, making
it into the ultimate ‘ethnic niche’ (Fellini et al. 2003). The migrant workforce from the
Republic of Moldova and Ukraine has distinctively targeted the sector, migrating first eastward
towards Russia but shifting more recently to Western Europe. A ‘multi-sited’ (Fitzgerald 2006)
research into their employment experiences allows for a comprehensive study of worker’s
strategies. In EU and in Russia Federation, this sector has different features due to a very
different history of labour and migrant regulation. It remains to be seen how labour perceives
and experience them, and how this, in turn shapes migration strategies.
The globalization in one continent
The systems of employment of EU and Russia have displayed in recent years increasing
trends towards recruiting workforce in bordering areas: on one side we have a sort of
“Europeanisation of migration”, on the other a "Sovietisation of migration”, i.e. the preference
to recruit respectively from EU countries and from the former USSR countries. Both areas
have experienced a process of geo-political reorganisation and economic dislocation reshaping
them as a unitary but hierarchically segmented socio-economic space. A common feature
produced by migration flows in both the EU and the FSU regions is the evolution from national
to international labour market systems. These processes amount, inter alia, to mini-
globalisations constantly forging new social hierarchies. These are powerful yet largely
informal processes generated at workplace level with the interplay of migrant workers’ and
The construction sector in the EU and the Russian Federation
The structure of the industry, and to a lesser extent of employment, presents similar
features in the two areas. They are characterised by a high level of fragmentation whereas a
few large groups confront a myriad small outlets working in sub-contracting. A large grey area
of economic activity facilitates the employment of undocumented migrants. In both areas
migrants represent a disproportionally high percentage of the workforce relative to other
The construction sector is the leading industrial employer in the EU, with 28.1% of
industrial employment (Eurostat 2010). Migrants make up now approximately 25-30% of the
workforce. Recruitment and employment system vary (Fellini et. al. 2003) but all EU
employers seek to circumvent labour standards through subcontracting and worker posting
(Lillie and Greer 2007). Full time employment prevails with easy hire-and-fire practices
managed by sub-contractors. ‘Posting’ has proved ‘to undermine collective bargaining and
employment regulation . . . [and] . . . to control the international movements of workers and
keep them separate from other workers’ (Lillie and Greer 2007). In 2010, about 25% of
construction workers are recorded as self-employed (Cremers 2007). There are workers who
see it as an opportunity to escape wage labour but many more who are induced into ‘bogus’
employment relationships set to avoid employers’ contractual obligations (Jørgensen 2003).
Finally, ‘European construction unions have been largely ineffective at including migrants’
(Lillie, Greer 2007, p. 574-5). Forms of recruitment and employment systems as well as the
highly fragmented structure of the industry perpetuate this state of affairs.
In 2008 the construction sector in Russia employed 5.5 million. Approximately one
million were migrant workers, but including illegal migrants the figure could be 2-3 times
higher (Zayonchkovskaya et al. 2009: 34, Tyuryukanova 2009: 155). The construction industry
is concentrated in large cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg. This workforce is openly
segregated first by country and then according to skills and type of construction site and the
propiska regime guarantees the exclusion of all migrants from contractual employments rights.
Segmentation by nationality, migratory status and skills allows for the continuation of dividing
tactics and enforcements of informal, often illicit, forms of employment by management.
A crucial role in deciding migrants’ employment is played by intermediaries (HRW
2009; RAN interviews). Ukrainian and Moldovan networks I Russia are consolidated while
teams from Asian countries are much more structured and regimented (Mansoor, Quillin 2006,
pp. 86-90). Labour relations in Russia and the FSU are governed by individualised practices.
Trade unions are most unlikely to be seen when migrants are employed. Workers though
cannot be viewed as helpless victims. They display a wide range of responses but constraints to
bargaining mean that individual solutions prevail.
The article is based on the initial findings of the research project ‘International
Migration and Labour Turnover’ (2010-2012), run by a small team of researchers based
respectively at the Italian university of Padua and at Middlesex Business School in London.
The research entails collection of local secondary materials and semi-structured interviews
with experts, managers and workers. Interviews and participant observation have been carried
out at work sites in major Italian and Russian cities as well as at migrants’ places of residence.
Data collection employs ethnographic techniques pioneered by Burawoy (2007) and
Clarke et al. (1993) in the post-socialist context. A dialogic approach allows full appreciation
of migrant worker’s views while avoiding postmodernist logocentrism (Ackroyd 2004,
Burawoy 1998). Fieldwork in the country of origin preludes to an analytical shift from an
exclusive host country focus, prevalent in Western Europe, to a regional approach.
Moldovans and Ukrainians migrant workers
The recently constituted republics of Ukraine and Moldova, constituent parts of the
Russian empire and later the Soviet Union, have emerged from the geopolitical earthquake
following the collapse of the Union as a contested borderland between new Europe and a
smaller Russian Federation, gripped by weak economies, fragile institutions and crippling
foreign interferences. Their peculiar position makes for substantial and continuous migratory
flows in both directions: to Russia, particularly the cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg, and
to some EU countries. Migration from the region begins in the mid 1990s and has now reached
considerable proportions: by prudent estimates there are now an estimated 600-800 thousand
Moldovans and about 2-3 million Ukrainians working abroad (Mosneaga 2006, Tolstokorova
2010). At home, Ukrainian and Moldovan migrants worked in agriculture with very low
monthly wages, respectively 50 € in Moldova and 150 € in Ukraine. Wages in western foreign
firms were slightly higher yet still failing decent earnings, averaging 150 € in Moldova and
200-250 € in Ukraine. In these countries, “the discipline is harsher than in Italy or in Spain.
The boss is not only the chief, he feels like a king there (Ivan, Padua 2010). Life prospects in
the villages are grim also in other areas: lack of welfare, decaying infrastructures and mafia-
like management prevent any possibility for professional and social development.
Migrant construction workers in Russia
The migration experience in Russia is conceptualised as ‘zarabotki’, which understands
as leaving temporarily one’s place of residence in order to earn a living. Informal networks,
based on personal connections, play an essential part in the migration process. Migrant workers
indicate that family or friends either offered jobs or facilitated the search initiated by the
respondent. If the latter act as facilitator, actual recruitment is carried out by intermediaries.
Once the migrant has familiarised with work and got acquainted with bosses he will await a
call or seek an offer from them. On occasions he can be required to recruit others in his locality
and will be rewarded extra. Over time he can himself become a recruiter or team leader. This
way, long chains of recruitment are constantly developed.
Most respondents are returning migrants, observing the three month threshold set by the state
and enforced by employers. This pattern allows the migrants to recuperate from an arduous job
and the associated living conditions. On the other side, it proves highly advantageous for both
business and the state. It allows extracting high productivity and maximum flexibility while
escaping welfare obligations. Permanent resettlement is not on everybody’s mind but is clearly
perceived as an altogether different enterprise; Petru, who chose instead to move into
neighbouring Transdnistria explains: ‘I would like to work in Russia but with my wife. I fell
homesick if she’s here and I’m there. I go on zarabotki if everything fails here. There are
problems though: naturalisation is expensive and there should be a job with a fat wage,
holidays and health insurance’. Shuttle work despite easiness of access, remains for most of
them a stressful experience, one that is endured out of necessity.
Working in Russian construction: from illegal migration to informal employment
Workers universally report irregularities in their migrant status or employment position.
As CIS citizens, since 2001, they are required to register for immigration, obtain a work permit
and ideally an employment contract too. Most of them failed one or more of these stages.
Immigration irregularities have become though less common as repression and simplification
of procedures has put pressure on bosses and employees alike. Genuine employment
relationships, with actual pay and benefits matching the paperwork formalities, remains hard to
find, even for Russian nationals. Dyma, on the scaffolding since he was sixteen, points out: ’I
do not think that a passport makes a difference: Russians too work informally – the firm does
not want [them] formally employed’ (Pervomajsk 2010). Viktor, from Ivanovo, voices equally
sceptical remarks: ‘I am officially employed, yes, but it’s a fraud! We never get holidays and
as for sick leave they only allow it in serious cases, which are normally their fault anyway’
(Moscow 2010). The exploration of migration trajectory confirms that informality dominates,
sought by employers and enforced by intermediaries. The latter play a crucial role but they
have hard time recruiting.
Pay and working conditions on the post-soviet construction site
The workplace is governed by custom rather than law or collective bargaining,
resembling in many aspects the paternalistic and authoritarian management of the soviet shop
floor but with less bargaining power for a highly fragmented and intermittent workforce. Pay
and working conditions can vary significantly depending on typology of site, size of firm and
skills of the individual employee, but nationality is the primary deciding factor. Pay rates
normally are not the object of discussion. Actual wages are calculated on the amount of work
(Slavic: ‘the employer prefers hourly pay; but in general everybody goes for piece-rate’).
Working time can stretch up to eleven hours per day, sometimes without a weekly break, and
workers often bargain over timetabling. Virtually all respondents report payment in cash by the
manager, the brigade leader or even from fellow colleagues. Payments are made in stages with
only small sums anticipated for expenses; therefore disputes over wage arrears are common.
Work organisation is based on brigades, often ethnically homogeneous, performing
specific tasks under the supervision of a brigade leader. Workers’ interviews portray him as the
target of resentment but also as a leader on which workers put high expectations. Issues of
health, safety and effort rate high among workers concerns. Finishing jobs are less heavy and
dangerous but the construction site is always described being awash with risks especially when
working at heights.
Workers’ agency: informal bargaining, absent unions and workers’ ‘small arms’ resistance
The Moscow union of construction workers, more powerful than the national
federation, is openly hostile to migrant workers (interview with global union officials, Moscow
2010). Workers, not surprisingly, have no knowledge or experience of union activity in the
Despite the many constraints to which they are subjected, workers display acute
awareness of their condition and try to act upon it either individually or in small groups.
Grievances range from wage issues to working time and poor working and living conditions.
The informal character of the employment relationship and the lack of union support mean that
such bargaining occurs in a direct, often personalised fashion, with line managers on site.
Many workers recount of stoppages, walkouts or other forms of collective action. Many more
observe that actions were thought of or attempted but failed to materialise in the face of
disagreement among workers and fear of damaging relations with the brigade leader.
Segregation by nationality further reinforce separation among the wider workforce, increasing
the insulation of the collective:
Individual mobility, between firms, jobs and ultimately countries, remains the most
common strategy for addressing those issues. Most respondents, including brigade leaders, are
disillusioned about work in the sector as a whole. The crisis has increased risks of instability of
work and earnings. Exit strategies encompass specialising in some highly valued trade but self-
employment also rates high in workers accounts. Eastward migration from Moldova and
Ukraine is declining and flows from these countries are turning westward, respondents though
appear reluctant to become ‘migrants’.
Case study 2
The great leap: migrant construction workers in Italy
Migrating to Italy appears to be an individual or family business; unlike migration
within FSU, there is little evidence from interviews of either network or recruitment structures
facilitating mobility. It also differs in that it is a financially and legally onerous enterprise
which generally implies a period of illegal stay. Family re-unification with spouses engaged in
the much expanded private care sector being the only exception. Respondents refer invariably
to the purchase of bogus documents as an entry device. In order to pay off their debts migrant
workers are then forced to accept irregular jobs paid cash in hands, which, in turn, increases the
risk of non-payment and other employment irregularities. Failure of recovering their wages is a
common occurrence in migrants’ accounts. Furthermore, as undocumented, they live in a
continuous state of fear and suffer extreme psychological duress.
The first stage: working as ‘illegal migrants’
Until 2007-8 finding an illegal job on a building site was a matter of days: ‘all people
work in construction, because they find work more easily’ (Sasha, Milan 2010). At busy times,
recruiters are said to visit public locations, such as bars or squares, normally populated by
migrants looking for journeyman. These jobs are poorly paid and normally without contract.
This results in significant labour turnover as workers seek better conditions elsewhere.
Undocumented migrants working illegally can easily be subjected to harsh working conditions
and abusive management. Another option is small businesses run by own nationals or other
migrants. Recruitment is informal and relies heavily on language-related ties. In such case
workers feel under particular pressure to perform because of personal trust bonds with
Work and employment conditions after regularisation: a new beginning?
Regularisation of stay has an immediate effect on employment conditions. Most
commonly reported changes relate to formal employment, access to union services and reduced
risk of abuse. Regularisation, they argue, may also lead to a reduction in working time. Some
workers report moving into self-employment whether as a career choice or because of
pressures from employers. Employers’ pressure though is most commonly referred to as
motivating factor. These workers can then hire a relative or a friend or ask them to follow the
same path. Some migrants resist the change fearing discrimination over tariffs in sub-
contracting work. They also note how self-employment offers flexibility for employers
transferring the risk onto the migrant.
Respondents report working in teams under strict supervision. Solidarity exists both
among workers and among migrants. Working does not feel any easier despite higher levels of
mechanisation relative to Russia. Accidents, such as ‘loss of limbs’ or ‘broken ribs’, are
relatively common among respondents. Control by state inspectors and trade unions are largely
Workers’ agency: between individual bargaining and union servicing
Italian unions seem popular among migrants with approx. one million of them on union
rolls. Nevertheless the union is described by respondents as an organisation providing discrete
services, rather than a tool to organize and defend their interests in the workplace. Workers’
accounts betray a substantial lack of trust in union’s ability to represent them and foster their
interests. Strikes, unsurprisingly, are a rare occurrence.
Findings confirm know facts about migration: the motivating factor of wage
differentials, the role of networks for recruitment, informality in employment, and the
appalling working conditions. They also contradict common senses about workers’ acceptance
of flexibility, the way networks and recruitment function, the lack of migrant’s strategic
Migration satisfies workers ‘immediate need for higher cash earnings but fall short of
their expectations and aspirations for stable employment, family plans and professional growth.
Their attitude is not without consequences. In Italy they seek regularisation and unionisation.
In Russia, where this is not possible, they minimise trips or seek alternatives to ‘zarabotki’:
sociologists’ views about positive changes in brigade leaders’ behaviour can be seen as partly
accommodating workers’ expectations. Employers and states are reluctant to accommodate
such pressures: in Italy they force workers into self-employment; in Russia they push recruiters
to seek cheap labour further afield. In both countries, migration is willingly expanded in new
forms: posted workers in the EU, Asian workers in Russia, shipped by agencies to replace
‘free’ migrants. Migration is playing an important role in casualising labour and consolidating
employers’ control. Turnover though represents both an indicator of its contradictions and a
constant challenge to its reproduction.