02 жовтня 2011

Ukrainian labor migrants and their families

A typical large Carpathian village of three thousand inhabitants was taken as a case study in this research project. Most families in this village have experience of labor migration, and a new district with large two or three-story newly-built private houses is being developed with the resources brought home by migrants. We focused on this district that currently consists of about 30 houses, most of them still unfinished, but already inhabited. In most families it is the father who leaves to work abroad (usually in construction), while wife and children remain.

Ukrainian labor migrants and their families: the case of a Carpathian village

Coordinated by Yevgenia Belorusets and Anastasiya Ryabchuk, with support of the International Institute of Social History

General information

The break-up of the Soviet Union and economic restructuring brought a significant decline in industrial and agricultural production in Ukraine in the 1990s. GDP reached its lowest in 1999, when it was 40,8% of the GDP of the Ukrainian SSR in 1990, and only in the early 2000s the economy began to grow. This growth was uneven, benefiting mainly large industrial centers and metropolitan areas, but even there development was halted by the financial crisis of 2008-2009 (at the end of 2009 Ukrainian GDP was 85,6% of the GDP in 1990). For many people living in small towns and villages (especially in predominantly agricultural Central, Western and Northern parts of the country) labor migration remains the only solution to poverty and unemployment. Neighboring countries both East and West of Ukraine (Russia, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania) are among the most common destinations for labor migrants, due to cultural and linguistic similarities and past experiences of migration. Another destination is South-Western Europe (Italy, Spain and Portugal).

The Carpathian region in Western Ukraine was one of the least developed areas of the Habsburg empire and later of Poland, Chechoslovakia and Romania (annexed to the USSR only in 1945) and experienced its first wave of transnational labor migration in the late XIXth century, towards North and South America. These experiences were described in detail by a Ukrainian expressionist writer and member of the Austrian parliament Vasyl Stefanyk. In the Soviet years, this region was considered “labor-excessive” (trudoizbitochnyi), as it was predominantly rural, with poorly developed industry and infrastructure, with workers living mainly from agriculture, tourism and vicinity to borders with Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland. Seasonal labor migration (shabashnichestvo) from this region to other parts of the USSR was common already in Soviet days. Commuting from the villages in the mountains to nearby towns for work during the week, staying at a workers’ hostel and returning home for the weekend, was also common, especially since permanent migration to Soviet cities was restricted [Gang and Stuart, 1999]. The latter post-war Soviet trend of weekly or longer-term commuting of “typically young, male and manual or low-skilled laborers” is described by Fuchs and Demko (1978:178), who point to the fact that in the 1970s less than 1% of these labor migrants had higher education and that their incomes on average were much lower than in the city:

Because commuters are “largely peasants restratified as workers for eight hours
a day”, a potentially serious problem of social justice has also arisen. This
“new working class”, created through involuntary commuting, is deprived of urban
housing, cultural facilities, and educational services, which in effect have
become reserved for those who earlier migrated to the cities or for
white-collar, technical or administrative workers. […] The commuters also find
that their children are denied access to the better educational facilities,
which are in the major urban centers, raising the possibility that group
disadvantages will be perpetuated [Fuchs and Demko 1978:180].

In November 1990, just a year before Ukraine became independent, 44.5% of Ukrainians said they would agree to work abroad, and 10.5% would consider leaving forever, and this figure was twice as high is Transcarpathian region [Shamshur 1991: 259]. Almost a million exit permits were given to Ukrainians in the first half of 1991 to visit friends and relatives in Poland, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Shamshur [ibid: 264] suggests that :
The bulk of this category of migrants is made up of “commercial tourists”
engaged in trading and other business operations abroad who cross the frontier
repeatedly under the guise of “personal reasons”, quite often utilizing false
invitations from foreign citizens, still necessary to get entrance visas and
exit permits. It can be assumed also that this group conceals a good deal of
job-searching migrants: according to some estimates, migrants looking for jobs
abroad make up about half of the travelers for “personal reasons”.
Taking all this into account, considering such a long history of labor migration from the Carpathian region, it is not surprising that labor migration is nowadays perceived by the local population as the most obvious solution to economic hardships and lack of opportunities.

A typical large Carpathian village of three thousand inhabitants was taken as a case study. To guarantee village residents confidentiality, an invented village name “Vesele” will be used in this research. Most families in this village have experience of labor migration, and a new district with large two or three-story newly-built private houses is being developed with the resources brought home by migrants. We focused on this district that currently consists of about 30 houses, most of them still unfinished, but already inhabited. In most families it is the father who leaves to work abroad (usually in construction), while wife and children remain. Occasionally, the wife may also leave the village, but for shorter periods of several weeks or months (working as a vendor, or joining the husband in the construction brigade, where she may be assigned cooking, washing and cleaning duties), and in those periods the children remain with grandparents. Main destination is Russia (which was a surprising finding, as we were expecting to see more migration to the West) for reasons that will be described in more detail when presenting research findings.


First stage of fieldwork took place in July-August 2011. In July together with a documentary photographer Yevgenia Belorusets we gathered preliminary data on the Carpathian region and visited several villages and towns to decide on the location for our case study, choosing Vesele village based on our own observations and on consultations with scholars familiar with the region. In early August we went together to Vesele village, where we rented a room in one of the private homes in the new district for one week. During this week we gathered the following information:

- Visual data (photographs, short videos) on the infrastructure and social life in the village
- Visual data on the migrants’ households – the interiors and exteriors of their homes, family portraits (often with the father away at work)
- Copies of photographs and letters that labor migrants send to their family members at home.
- Digital recordings of interviews with migrants’ families.
Ten families have agreed to participate in the project and another ten families refused (with the rest being unavailable at the time of our fieldwork). We plan to return to the village after completing the analysis of gathered data and deciding on further focus (one option being to focus on the life history of one family).

Preliminary research findings and possibilities for further research

a) Economic impact of migration for the community

The problem of labor migration from Western Ukraine is widely discussed in media and raised by politicians during electoral campaign. During the "Orange revolution" Viktor Yushchenko - whose electorate came predominantly from the economically depressed villages and small towns - repeatedly stressed that when he would come to power no one would have to leave the country in search of work, and promised to create five million new jobs within five years. During the last electoral campaign less than a year ago another candidate for presidency - Arsenii Yatseniuk has sponsored a publication of stories told by children whose parents left for work in the West. The right-wing populist party “Svoboda” also promises to create new jobs for Ukrainians to allow labor migrants to return home and find work there (while adding a xenophobic anti-migration point to the party program, where immigrants to Ukraine are perceived as taking jobs away from Ukrainians).

We see that labor migration receives media attention and retains political significance during the last two decades. The problem also receives great attention from religious organizations (majority of migrants’ families from Western Ukraine are practicing Greek-Catholics) and NGOs. They are urging Ukrainians “not to look at work abroad through pink glasses” and spreading leaflets to inform Schengen visa applicants of possible violations of their rights (one of well-known organizations working in this field is “La strada” whose goal is to prevent human trafficking), dealing with problems migrants may face abroad (e.g. network “Zarobitchany.org”) and with “family break-up and community disintegration” at home in Ukraine.

At the same time positive impacts of migration are not examined in these apocalyptic media accounts. Vesele is a village that is growing and developing - a rare case in Ukraine, possibly also thanks to migration. Large private houses, small family businesses, and education for children – all this would not have been possible without the support of those family members who migrate in search of work abroad. It is also worth noting, that many families in their interviews could not imagine a situation when labor migration would no longer be necessary to provide for their livelihoods. Even if more jobs were available in their region, salaries would still have been lower and rural communities would still offer fewer opportunities for the more ambitious workers, so they would rather migrate in order to earn more.

Possibilities for further research would include a literature review comparing impacts of labor migrants’ remittances for different home communities, including other parts of the globe, as the classical cases of the Indian province Kerala, or well-documented Latin American and north-African cases. The ideological side of the problem is also interesting – how political parties’ position described above offers a conservative reaction to the neo-liberal transformations and to the integration of the Carpathian region in a global capitalist economy, and why a conservative response, stressing the importance of the family and patriotic values over personal financial gain, becomes a dominant “critical voice” on this issue, marginalizing possible alternative critical accounts of labor migration in this region.

b) Family and gender

On the micro-sociological level, when speaking of “family break-up” and “community disintegration”, there is little analysis of these long-term consequences of labor migration for affected families and communities. A possibility for deeper understanding of the processes taking place in such families and communities comes from ethnographic research in situ using such methods as in-depth interviewing, analysis of documents (local press publications, correspondence between family members) and documentary photography to observe living conditions and daily activities.

One of the focuses of the research will be on changes in family composition and division of labor within the household (for example, women take up many of the traditionally “male” jobs while their husbands are away, or with additional money from their husbands women may be able to afford giving up some of their previous chores by buying equipment like washing-machines, or purchasing products instead of producing them on their own), job opportunities offered to migrants’ children (do they remain in their home towns or villages, migrate to larger Ukrainian cities or emigrate like their parents?), social status of families of migrants compared to those rural dwellers that do not have family members working abroad.

Observed migrant families in Vesele offer a very interesting combination of a traditional rural patriarchal social organization (man as the breadwinner, woman taking care of the household and children, large garden and domestic animals are a must, working hard as a key value, concern over possible social condemnation from neighbors and relatives), and new patterns (encouraging children to leave the village to receive higher education, building huge houses with all facilities and modern construction materials and “euro-style” interior decorations). Interestingly, migration reinforces both types of trends (“traditional” and “modern”) at the same time, despite these trends being quite contradictory.

It is also noteworthy, that the workingman’s living conditions deteriorate when he migrates for work abroad, has to save on housing, food, clothes and medical aid in order to bring back more money to his family (often living on the construction site with his fellow-workers or even experiencing periods of temporary homelessness and frequenting soup kitchens for the destitute). But at the same time, his wife’s and children’s status improves, as they are able to decorate the newly-constructed house with the most up-to date materials, buy good furniture, clothes, food and cosmetics. One may say, that while the migrant husband is an illegal precarious worker abroad, his wife and children enjoy a middle-class status back home.

In fact, this interesting tendency was noted also in other countries and historical periods, were migrant men suffering from difficult working conditions were able to provide for a comfortable lifestyle of their wives and children back home. Linda Reeder, writing about mass male migration in Sicily in 1880-1920s, highlights that “goals and desires of the women who remained behind informed many of the choices made by male migrants” [Reeder, 2001: 375] and that migration of the husband was considered as “a sacrifice for the good of the family” [ibid: 379]. She shows that migrants’ wives acted as managers of their husbands incomes, and could spend that money as they saw fit: buying or building new houses (sometimes without waiting for the husbands to return) and consumer goods that showed the family’s improved status:
The wives of migrants moved their families into roomy, two-story houses,
preferably with small separate kitchens off one room. The average size and the
net worth of the buildings owned by these women were twice that of those owned
by women whose husbands remained at home. As soon as the families moved into
their new homes, women began to replace their old furnishings with new,
store-bought iron bedsteads, tables and dressers. In purchasing homes and
furnishing them with rugs, lamps, and mirrors brought in from Palermo and
Agrigento, these women took the initial steps to fulfill the dreams they had
invested in migration [Reeder 2001: 388]
The dark side of such attempts by migrants’ wives “to purchase the physical appearance of the bourgeois world” according to Reeder as the increased dependence on the goodwill of their husbands and weakened ability to control husbands’ earnings, as well as a conflict of interests between the husband and the wife as to where the money should go.

c) Changing migration patterns at the turn of the XX and the XXI centuries

Too often labor migration is perceived exclusively as a temporary side-effect of the “transition period”, while I believe that in the explanation “transition to capitalism” emphasis on capitalism should also be made (with a subsequent question on the place of Ukraine in the capitalist world-system) and both temporary and systemic consequences of these processes should be analyzed in more detail. It is also necessary to look at the late-Soviet period, and in particular – the structure of the economy. For example, unemployment (and migration) is currently much higher in those regions that in Soviet period were more labor-extensive and less rich in natural resources. In fact, some unofficial labor migration from Western and Northern Ukraine to Kyiv and other large cities was already taking place in the 1980s.

Other questions that demand closer scientific investigation include changes in migration patterns since the early 1990s until today (and what specific economic, political and social factors contribute to these changes) and – at a global level – in what way does labor migration from Ukraine resemble migration from other countries of the economic periphery or semi-periphery to the West or to neighboring countries, and what are the differences. Since we are speaking of two decades of labor migration from the Carpathian region after the break-up of the Soviet Union, such socio-historical research would already be possible.

Some of the families interviewed had experiences of seasonal labor migration within the borders of USSR in the 1980s (mainly to Russia). In the 1990s possibilities for westward migration appeared, with Czech Republic and Portugal being two of the most popular destinations in this particular village. However, with tightening border control and visa procedures, most people in this village once again changed their preferred destination to Russia, where one can stay legally for up to three months (although work is considered illegal without a working contract, therefore in all of the interviewed families it was work in the shadow economy). While the first change of migration patterns was predictable (with the end of the Cold war and more opportunities to travel to Western Europe), the second change back to Russia was an unexpected finding and should be examined in greater detail.

Therefore, one of the focuses of this research will involve changes in the matrix of household and individual decision-making to migrate to a particular country as new opportunities emerge and previously popular destinations lose their attraction. Another issue would be cooperation among relatives and neighbors in the village when deciding to migrate. For example, while many women also tried migrating temporarily in search of work, their absence from home was not as long, and in some cases they followed their husbands and a group of men from the village to do the cooking, washing and cleaning for them. One of the wives would occasionally go with a brigade of about ten men for a period of three months, leaving the kids with grandparents, but would then return to the village for a longer period, unlike the men, who tended to be absent from home for 10-11 months out of 12. Why is this the case? And why didn’t the men simply take their wives with them and have them near, instead of having to invest in large houses where they never live and in regular trips home?

Reasons for the choice of cyclical and return migration rather than emigration were discussed by many scholars. For example, the rural-urban migration in the late 19th -early 20th century Russian Empire had a very similar migratory pattern as the one we see in Vesele village today, that resulted in “split households” with wives and children remaining in the villages, and men migrating to the cities in small groups consisting of neighbors or relatives (forming a “brigade” or “artel”) where they formed non-family households to save on living costs – exactly the same thing respondents in our study are doing. Two of the reasons listed by Timur Valekov for keeping the links to the village and even investing their revenues into their rural households in the Russian Empire at turn of the century seem relevant for our case: keeping the village as an “option of last resort”, since work in the city did not guarantee social security in case of old age or illness, and the inability to provide for their families in the expensive urban environment, where more money had to be spent on housing and food than in the villages [Valetov 2008:165].

d) Private-public distinction

Another finding that merits more attention is the sharp distinction between the public and the private sphere in Vesele village. Women, whose husbands have migrated abroad, are often confined to their private home, concerned with creating a ‘little corner of Heaven on earth’. They invest many resources into planting flowers in front of their houses and putting dwarfs and other decorative figures in their gardens, they dream with a smile on their face about the color in which the house will be painted after it is finished (most choose bright colors – green, blue, pink). The interiors of their home look new and carefully-selected by the wife to look just like the interiors from a popular journal “Cozy house”. The huge parental bed is used not by the couple, but by the wife and her children, since the husband is almost never home. Women only leave their homes to talk to their neighbors – women in a similar situation as themselves, or to visit parents or other relatives. They are never seen in local bars and cafes, or simply “hanging out” in the main street like men. The public-private distinction becomes a very gendered one, especially considering that most women do not work outside of home.

The attitudes towards the public sphere and public services are also striking. Many of our respondents have complained about the absence of a pre-school day care for small children, that they would have wished to have (the building of the pre-school was closed down almost a decade ago for renovation). But they have not taken any steps either to demand the local authorities to finish the renovation or to create an alternative community pre-school themselves. There doesn’t seem much solidarity or concern over other urgent issues, like the deteriorating state of the local hospital (most women prefer to go to the nearest town to give birth to their babies), the fact that only the central street is paved, or that the gas pipe that runs through the village does not provide villagers with gas. I believe that labor migration with its concern over improving one’s personal living standards could be a contributing factor to such individualization and sharp public-private distinction, or that they are both caused by a third factor - for example the dominant ideological framework. But this question needs further investigation.


Fuchs, Roland and Demko, George (1978). The postwar mobility transition in Eastern Europe. In: The Geographical Review. Vol.68, No.2 (April 1978), pp.171-182.
Gang, Ira and Stuart, Robert (1999) Mobility Where Mobility Is Illegal: Internal Migration and City Growth in the Soviet Union. In: Journal of Population Economics. Vol. 12, No. 1, Special Issue on Illegal Migration (February 1999), pp. 117-134.
Reeder, Linda (2001) Conflict across the Atlantic: women, family and mass male migration in Sicily, 1880-1920. In: International Review of Social History. Vol.46. pp.371-391.
Shamshur, Oleg (1991). Ukraine in the context of New European Migrations. In: International Migration Review. Vol.26, No.2, pp.258-268.Valetov, Timur (2008). Migration and the household: urban living arrangements in late 19th- to early 20th-century Russia. In: History of the family. Vol.13, pp.163-177.
Valetov, Timur (2008). Migration and the household: urban living arrangements in late 19th- to early 20th-century Russia. In: History of the family. Vol.13, pp.163-177.

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