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6. REFUGEES AND THE LABOR MARKET In Russia, where the abundance of human resources appeared to be inexhaustible, no steps have been taken to regulate or even to register the labor force; and, as a consequence, two years of war have brought the shortage of workers into sharp relief. —F. A. Ivanov, 31 May 1916 It is psychologically beyond the strength of the merchant to join the ranks of the unskilled, and for the professional musician to go down the mine. . . . —V . M. Vort, “Promyshlennyi trud i bezhentsy” Migrant workers are immortal; immortal, because continually interchangeable. They are not born; they are not brought up; they do not age; they do not get tired; they do not die. They have a single function—to work. All other functions of their lives are the responsibility of the country they came from. —John Berger, A Seventh Man None of Russia’s refugee population were “immortal” in the sense in which John Berger characterizes the status of migrant workers in western Europe. Refugees were not “continually interchangeable,” and they certainly aged, fell sick, and (in some cases) died before they were able to go “home.” For the most part they did not have a background in the industrial economy. The search for work was normally an incidental attribute, not a condition of their spatial mobility.1 All the same, we must be alert to the prospect that refugees might have sought paid employment as a means of maintaining carefully acquired skills and sustaining a sense of personal dignity and worth. This is not how it seemed to many jaded observers, who regularly criticized refugees for avoiding work wherever possible. Even some sympathetic onlookers believed that there was some truth to this accusation, although they accepted that exhausted and demoralized refugees were understandably reluctant to enter the labor market. The possibility that refugees could work in order to support themselves and their dependents did not ¤gure prominently in public discussions of the consequences of the ¤rst wave of population displacement in the summer of 1915.2 Most government of¤cials and public activists devoted their time to the alleviation of individual physical suffering or to public health issues. Contemporary reports also made much of the fact that the majority of refugees were not able-bodied and would need to be supported by productive workers from among the settled population. Indeed, most refugees tended to be young or old, and disproportionately female; as dependents or women with family responsibilities, they were deemed unsuitable for war work.3 No more than one-¤fth of all refugees were believed to be capable of productive labor, and in the case of Armenian refugees the proportion was thought to be less than 5 percent. Of¤cials nonetheless devoted a good deal of time to the discussion of measures that might encourage this minority to respond to offers of paid employment.4 During the early months of 1916, when the situation in the labor market became more critical, the potential role of refugee labor began to command more space in the local and national press, as well as in the deliberations of the Special Council for State Defense, the chief executive agency for the administration of the war economy.5 A shortage of labor, particularly in the agricultural sector and to a lesser degree in the coal mines of south Russia, helped to concentrate the minds of government of¤cials. Members of the Special Council were understandably more concerned with production and with public ¤nances, rather than with the right to work, and it was from these perspectives that employment became an issue.6 Another argument—less frequently advanced—in favor of promoting employment among refugees was that they could substitute for “undesirable” elements in the labor force. A tendentious article in the prestigious Petrograd newspaper Birzhevye vedomosti, entitled “Yellow Labor and the Refugees,” took the view that it would be “criminal” to continue to employ Chinese and Korean workers in Russia’s Far East when there were “¤t, healthy, energetic, and enthusiastic” Slavic refugees who could take their place.7 Whatever the justi¤cation for ¤nding them jobs, refugees who could work sometimes featured in of¤cial discussions as a broadly undifferentiated pool of potential labor.8 Zemstvo and municipal activists, in closer touch with the pro¤le of the refugee population, tended to adopt a more nuanced perspective, which governed their approach to the question of refugee employment. An article in the leading mouthpiece of big business advocated...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780253003027
Related ISBN
9780253213464
MARC Record
OCLC
298104960
Pages
336
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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