A ‘migrant worker's guide’ to the city of St. Petersburg has provoked an outcry from rights activists in Russia and internet users in Tajikistan who claim it depicts labor migrants in an ‘offensive way’.
The authorities in Russia's St. Petersburg apparently meant well when they produced a reference guide for the city's migrant workers in August. Available in Russian, Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Uzbek, ‘The Migrant Worker's Guide‘ (pdf) has been distributed among laborers from Central Asia to help them make their way in the city. The guide contains legal advice on registration with the authorities, recommendations related to personal hygiene, and precautions against sexually transmitted diseases. It also gives advice on cultural aspects of life in Russia.
Thousands of copies of the guide had already been distributed before the leaflet was spotted by Russian rights activists in mid-October. They condemned the guide for featuring cartoon-style illustrations depicting migrant workers as tools such as brooms, paint brushes, trowels, and paint rollers. In contrast, the local residents are depicted in the guide as human beings. Alexander Shishlov, human rights ombudsman for St. Petersburg, criticized the cartoons as “not conducive to tolerance”.
Confronted with criticism, St. Petersburg's authorities denied having anything to do with the guide, suggesting that it had been designed by a non-governmental organization and approved by migration officials in Central Asian states. They also promised to stop the distribution of the leaflet.
Outrage in Tajikistan
Despite the reassurances, the guide has provoked outcry in Tajikistan, the country which sends over a million of its citizens annually to Russia for work. Journalist Khiromon Baqozoda was the first person in the country who reacted against the offensive images. On the Radio Ozodi's blog, Baqozoda shared (tj) the details of his telephone conversation with an official in charge of St. Petersburg's international affairs as well as with the author of ‘The Migrant Worker's Guide’. According to the journalist, she managed to convince them that the cartoons were offensive and unacceptable.
Numerous comments (tj, ru) underneath the blog show that most visitors on the website also found the representation of migrant workers as tools deeply insulting.
Another Tajik journalist, Salim Aioubzod, on his personal blog also criticized (tj) the controversial guide:
Шумо, агар ба ман гапи хубе омӯзондан мехоҳед, чаро худро дар шакли одами зиндаву маро дар сурати асбобу анҷом қаламдод мекунед? Оё нахустин сабақи чунин тасвирҳо ин нест, ки ман бояд кӣ будани худро фаромӯш накунам ва ҷойи худро дар ҷамъияти инсонҳо ба хубӣ бидонаму аз ёд набарорам?
If you would like to teach me something good, why do you portray yourself as a living person and me as a tool? Isn't the primary thing that such [guides] purport to teach that I should not forget [who I am] and that I should remember my place in the community of human beings?
Blogger Isfandiyor Zarafshoni speculated [ru] about the motives behind depicting migrant workers as physical objects rather than human beings:
Эти картинки обезличили, унизили и обесчеловечили наших сограждан. Нас представили в виде орудиев труда – без души, без тела, без культуры. Это понятно, потому что орудиев труда легче обидеть, использовать и эксплуатировать, не испытывая при этом никаких укоров совести.
These images have defaced, humiliated, and dehumanized our fellow citizens. We have been represented as tools, without souls, without bodies, and without culture. This is understandable because it is easier to offend, use, and exploit tools, without feeling a remorse.
On the largest Tajikistani Facebook group ‘Platforma,’ many people appeared not at all offended by the images used in the Russian guide. Solomon Burikhan, for example, suggested [ru] that the tools that supposedly represent foreign workers might have nothing to do with citizens of Tajikistan:
а что там подчеркнули что таджики и есть шпательки и мастерки[?],если нет то не обрщайте внимания,среди мигрантов есть и китайцы и вьетнамцы и весь кавказ,надо что бы и эти диаспоры возмутились…
Have they indicated that those trowels and paint rollers are Tajiks? If not, don't pay attention. Migrant workers [in Russia] also include the Chinese, Vietnamese, and people from all over the Caucasus. These diasporas should feel angry…
Another Facebook user, Rizich Akbari, who now lives in Russia, contended [ru] that it was the publicity and controversy that made the images appear offensive:
Честно говоря, я бы не обратил внимание, если бы этому не предали такой огласки. А относятся к нам, к каждому индивидуально, я например абсолютно не чувствую на себе ничего негативного, а другие может и чувствуют.
Honestly, I wouldn't have even paid attention [to these images] if there wasn't all this publicity. [In Russia], they treat us all differently, on an individual-to-individual basis. For instance, I do not feel any negative attitude towards me, but some others may feel it.
The controversy surrounding the depiction of migrant workers in the Russian-produced guide has led the authorities in Tajikistan to react publicly. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said [ru] the production of such documents should always be coordinated with the authorities in Tajikistan. The Migration Service urged the authorities in St. Petersburg to destroy all copies of the guide deemed “offensive to the national feelings of the Tajik citizens”.
New national symbols?
Karomat Sharipov, head of the Moscow-based Tajik Labor Migrants movement, said [ru] the governments of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan (the three countries in whose languages the guide was published) should seek to ban the distribution of ‘The Migrant Worker's Guide’ in court:
Если они этого не сделают, значит, их устраивает, как наших людей позиционируют в России, и тогда они сами будут причастны к этой позорной истории. Пусть тогда заменят гербы на наших паспортах и нарисуют там новые символы наших наций – веник, валик, кисточку и шпатель.
If they don't do it, it would mean that they are alright with the way our people are represented in Russia. In this case, they would be complicit in this shameful [occurrence]. They should then also replace coats of arms in our passports with the new symbols of our nations – brooms, paint brushes, trowels, and paint rollers.