Page last updated at 17:32 GMT, Friday, 25 March 2011

Why are Ukrainians working abroad?

David Stern
BBC Reporter, Nikolaev


Oksana Pluker is one of many Ukrainian women making a living in Italy

Ten years ago, Oksana Plyuker left her home in western Ukraine, in search of a brighter future.

The 32 year old eventually found it in Italy. She works in Venice as a private nurse for an elderly woman confined to a wheelchair.

She thinks the work is much better than anything that she could have found in Ukraine.

She earns between 700-750 euros every month, and can travel home every year for an extended holiday.

Oksana says that anyone who cares about their future and cannot find work in Ukraine, eventually leaves. Of her own immediate circle of friends and relatives, about 15 have left the country.

"It's very difficult to find yourself here," she says during a recent trip to visit her parents in her hometown of Nikolaev, near Lviv.

"I think that our labour is not valued here. It's easier to work abroad."

"For me, living in Italy means being confident in what will happen tomorrow," she adds.

"It's very difficult to live on wages here in Ukraine - especially for people with a family."

Enough employment?

Labour migration has been a painful topic for Ukraine ever since it achieved independence 20 years ago.

The country's economy has never been able to provide enough employment or a living wage for roughly 23 million working age Ukrainians. The world economic crisis made the situation even more acute - the country's gross domestic product dropped by around 15 percent in 2009.

90% of Ukrainian female labour migrants in Italy work in domestic service
In Ukraine, 16% of families have some experience of temporary labour emigration
Males make up 70% of Ukrainian labour emigrants
Migration in Ukraine: A Country Profile 2008 - IOM

Oksana is one of more than 1.5 million Ukrainians who have left Ukraine to find work, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

A total of some 6.5 million Ukrainians live outside the country, but this figure includes students, private businessmen and others who may not have necessarily left as labour migrants.

The majority of these economic migrants are located in Russia - but Italy, Poland, Spain and Germany also figure prominently.

Together those working abroad send back up to $1.5 billion in remittances.

Exodus of youth

A large number of the immigrants come from the less industrial, western portion of the country. It has a weak economy and borders on the European Union.

In some villages the number of young people seems severely depleted. Now some experts are predicting another wave of exoduses.

Most people say that they want to stay abroad only two to three years, but 10 years later they are still there
Oksana Pyatkovska

The Institute of Education, Culture and Relations with the Diaspora in Lviv conducted a study among 400 of the city's inhabitants which found that some 36 percent of those questioned would like to the leave the country.

Of these, the majority were people under the age of 30 with higher educational qualifications.

"We think that many of these people will not return," says Oksana Pyatkovska, who helped administer the survey.

"Most people say that they want to stay abroad only two to three years, but 10 years later they are still there."

Oksana Plyuker agrees. She says that she wants to return to her homeland eventually, but for the moment this is only a dream.

Ukraine's economy is "standing in place," she says - not becoming significantly worse, but at the same time not showing any improvement.

"Maybe I will return here someday - but I don't know when," she says. "Maybe with time things will change here for the better. But for the moment - no."

Left at home

For those left behind, life can be difficult. Evgen and Vera are two pensioners, who take care of their school-age grandchildren in the village of Veryn.

Their daughter, Lida, left four years ago to live in Italy, where she works as a cleaning woman.

Olya's mother, Lida, has worked as a cleaner in Italy for four years

Vera and Evgen make ends meet from a number of sources. From the government, they receive a monthly pension of just over $200. Lida also sends home between 400 and 500 euros per month.

Outside, in their small courtyard, they keep two cows and about a dozen chickens, as well as a young piglet that they will slaughter in a few months for meat.

Taken together, all this provides them the sustenance to get by.

But there are additional worries. Vera needed an operation for a hip replacement, which cost some $4,000.

This would not have been possible without the additional funds from Italy. The youngest grandchild, Olya, who is 11, also suffers from a stomach ailment.

"She had a serious case of the flu recently, and we barely saved her," Vera says. "We need the money for everything, including food."

Olya's eyes shine when she shows the dolls and purse that her mother has brought her back from Italy. But when asked what she wants most of all, she responds without hesitation.

"I want my mother to come back," she says.

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