Once a country of EU record-high emigration, Lithuania has recently become a new home for thousands of Ukrainians, who come here in search for a better life. According to the Lithuanian Migration Department, the number of Ukrainians living in Lithuania has rocketed by almost 42 per cent in 2018, making them the largest foreign community in Lithuania. The stats say there were 16 873 Ukrainian nationals in Lithuania as of January 1, 2019, a hike of an impressive 41,9 per cent from a year ago.
Foreign workers come in thousands
With the workforce haemorrhage stemming from high emigration, Ukrainians and other non-EU country nationals are patching up the gaping gaps in the supply of workers in Lithuania. For comparison, in Lithuania there were slightly over 18 000 workers from third countries in 2016, 40 000 – in 2017 and the number rolled over 55 000 last year.
«If not for our six Ukrainian drivers, we would be in trouble. The depletion of workforce is very tangible, both in the county and in the country. We have fewer local drivers willing to sit behind the bus steering wheel. We just have a whole lot fewer people around,» Modestas Čeponkus, deputy director of JSC «Vlasava», a transport company of the resort town of Palanga in western Lithuania, told Baltic New Network (BNN).
A new bus route targeting Ukrainian workers
In fact, it was the ongoing arrival of hundreds of Ukrainians that prompted the company to open a new bus route, from Klaipėda, the port city in western Lithuania, to Cherson in Ukraine. Vlasava employs 76 people, most of whom are bus drivers.
«To serve that itinerary, we hired six Ukrainians. They are doing a great job. All of them are hard-working, very positive and, unlike many local drivers, of low-maintenance. They sincerely appreciate the given job and they speak Russian, so there is no language barrier – they blend in local life very well. As far as I know, many of them plan to bring their families here,» Čeponkus said.
The Klaipėda county saw influx of 827 Ukrainians last year – most of them worked namely in transport and construction sectors.
Legislative motion to curb influx of foreign workers
The number of foreign workers has been growing so fast that some lawmakers registered law amendments aimed to curb the growth of foreign labour force. But many Lithuanian businessmen disapprove the efforts – Lithuania simply does not have other alternative to keep the economy rolling at the pace.
According to Lithuania’s Social Security and Labour Ministry, in 2018, around 60 per cent of Lithuanian multi-entry national visas based on labour permits were granted to Ukrainians, around 60 per cent of temporary permits were also granted to Ukrainians. For the last couple of years, Ukrainians are enjoying simplified procedures to obtain labour permit in Lithuania.
Yet employing the Ukrainian bus drivers at «Vlasava» was not easy for the company management.
Roadblocks had to be removed
«We needed to remove quite a few bureaucratic hurdles along the way. First, we had to get clearance of the local Labour Occupancy Service (LOS), formerly Labour Exchange. We had to prove it that with the advertisements about the openings for bus driver positions at «Vlasava» placed, there was no interest from Lithuanians for the job. Only then we could proceed with the hiring,» Čeponkus remembered.
Interestingly, only two Lithuanians, potential bus drivers, called the Palanga company to find more about the job. But after being told that they would need to drive 1600 kilometres – this is the distance from Klaipėda to Cherson – their interest fizzled away. The Ukrainian drivers in Palanga earn around 722 euros, net, and the wage can go considerably up with the more workhours tallied.
Ukrainians are hard-workers
When approached for a brief interview, Nikolaij Ivasikov and Konstantin (the latter preferred to go only by his first name), sounded happy about their new home, Palanga.
«We did hear a lot of nice things about Lithuania and Lithuanians before leaving our homeland. I do like here everything, the weather, the sea which is at hand, the relations we have with our fellow Lithuanian colleagues,» Ivasikov told BNN. Before, he worked in Cherson as driver of a local transport company and the job would take him frequently on long-haul trips to Moscow, Warsaw and other megapolises over the Ukrainian border.
Catfish grower dumped the business to come to work in Lithuania
UAB «Elme transportas», a transport company in Klaipėda, employs 20 Ukrainians. Disappointed by economic hardships back home, they have pinned all their hopes for a better life for themselves and their families in Lithuania. One of them, Ilienko Bohdan, had had own business in rural Ukraine – was growing catfish, but with the business skidding to an extent, where making ends meet was impossible, the man left the catfish for his brother and sat in the Klaipėda-bound bus.
His employer, «Elme transportas» pays his and his fellow Ukrainians’ rent. Likewise Lithuanian emigrants in the West, Ukrainians, too, are big savers – the money they earn go to often poverty-stricken families in Ukraine.
Algimantas Dirgėla, director of the company, lavish his foreign workers with praises. On the other hand, he had no other choice but follow into the footsteps of many other fellow Klaipėdian entrepreneurs – hire Ukrainians. The shortage of skilled workers is tangible; besides, the locals are picky with jobs. «Lithuanians want bigger wages, big flexibility with their work schedule and so on,» he told BNN.
Presidents addressed issue of Ukrainians’ exploitation
Yet numbers of Ukrainians in Lithuania end up in deeper misery than they were in their home country – cheating, dishonest employers in Lithuania, as perhaps everywhere, are not a rarity. The scourge is so wide-spread that exploitation of Ukrainian workers had reached the agenda of the meeting of former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko and now outgoing Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite in the end of 2017. Both heads-of-state signed then memorandum aiming to fight exploitation of Ukrainian workers in Lithuania. But only in the end of 2018, Lithuania passed necessary legislation to strengthen social guarantees to Ukrainian workers in Lithuania and fight illegal work.