Zarobitchanstvo (Ukraine)

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Zarobitchanstvo 🇺🇦
Ukraine map.png
Location: Ukraine
Definition: Earnings made through labour migration, both internal and external
Keywords: Ukraine FSU Europe Employment Migration Money Payment
Clusters: Market Functional ambivalence System made me do it Survival Informal entrepreneurship
Author: Alissa Tolstokorova
Affiliation: Independent scholar

By Alissa Tolstokorova, Independent scholar

Zarobitchanstvo (Ukrainian заробітчанство, Russian подённые заработки) is a term used in Ukraine for ‘earnings made away from home,’ that is, labour migration, both internal and external. Today, between 10 and 20 per cent of Ukrainians of working age are engaged in zarobitchanstvo. Recent years have seen a surge in female migrant labour, and this is having a significant impact on Ukrainian society.
Photograph showing a returnee from Canada.

Travelling abroad to work is not a new phenomenon in Ukraine: it has long been a means of self-reliance in times of social and financial turmoil. It was practised both in tsarist Russia and under Soviet rule. In the USSR, for instance, there was a common informal practice known as ‘to leave in search of a long rouble,’ meaning to travel to work in the Russian Far North, where salaries were substantially higher than elsewhere in the country. There were also informal artels of shabashniks (Zemtsov 2001:332)[1], that is, cooperative associations of people who travelled around the country in search of temporary or seasonal work, chiefly in building or agriculture, and mainly with private employers. In the 1990s, during Ukraine’s transition from a command to a market economy, working abroad became commonplace.

Work has traditionally been assigned in Ukraine according to gender, and migrant workers are no exception. As a result, the ‘gendered structure of zarobitchanstvo’ is a key characteristic of migrant labour today (Haidinger 2008:132)[2]. Ukrainian men generally find work abroad as builders, drivers, mechanics and fitters. Ukrainian women, by contrast, are generally employed as office cleaners, domestic or factory workers, carers for the elderly, or dancers in bars and nightclubs.

In the 1990s, when the construction industry was the main source of foreign work for Ukrainians, migratory flows were mostly male (GfK 2008:9)[3]. The 2000s, by contrast, saw a surge in female migration. Recent estimates put the female share of the workforce at between 35.4 per cent and 50.5 per cent (Markov 2009)[4].

Many migrant workers come from the rural regions of western Ukraine. For example, 41.9 per cent of the population of Transcarpathian Oblast (region) in south-western Ukraine are believed to have worked abroad, of whom 56.1 per cent are male and 43.9 per cent are female). In Ternopil Oblast in western Ukraine, 17.6 percent of the economically active population have worked abroad, of whom 51.4 per cent in the region overall are female, while in the regional capital the female share reaches as high as 62.5 per cent (Shushpanov 2009)[5]. Of the EU countries, Ukrainian women are most likely to travel for work to the Mediterranean region. In Spain, for example, up to 55 per cent of Ukrainian labour migrants are female; in Greece 75.5 per cent; in Italy 90.2 per cent. Male workers are more likely to find work in Portugal, where they make up 68 per cent of the Ukrainian workforce; in Russia 60.4 per cent; or in Germany 60 per cent. Recent years have seen an acceleration of female labour force outflow to Russia (up from 39.6 per cent in 2001 to 50 per cent in 2009) and to Poland (up from 19.4 per cent in 2001 to 66 per cent in 2009).

Photograph taken of a returnee from Portugal.

The feminisation of zarobitchanstvo has led to several new phenomena. These include: Neapolitisation. This term describes the process of adaptation to life in a host city/society. It is used in particular by Ukrainian migrants in Italy where Naples is the most common destination (Ukrainian – Neapol). ‘New Cinderellas’ (Tolstokorova 2011)[6] or ‘Naples Cinderellas’. These terms describe Ukrainian migrant women whose target country of migration is often (though not always) Italy, again with Naples as a frequent destination. ‘Skype mommy’ (Savka 2013)[7] and ‘transnational supermom’ (Tolstokorova 2013). These terms refer to migrant mothers whose children remain in Ukraine.

‘Italian syndrome.’ This term was coined by psychologists in western Ukraine to cover a complex of mental and physical disorders that migrant workers, especially women, may develop during their time abroad (not necessarily in Italy, but also elsewhere). These include depression, paranoia, agoraphobia and other psychological problems resulting from alienation from family and loss of familiar social connections. Female domestic workers may suffer spinal injuries, for example as a result of having to lift bed-ridden patients. Long absences from home and a fragmented style of transnational family life may also encourage unsafe sexual relations which may in turn harm migrants’ reproductive health.

‘Italian children.’ (Majdanik 2010)[8]. This describes children of migrant workers (again, not only those working in Italy) who, in the absence of their parents, become ‘social orphans’ – a term usually used in Ukraine to describe children who have biological parents but who live on the streets, with foster families, or in boarding houses. Deprived of family socialisation and gender role-models, these young people often lack opportunities to learn survival skills such as self-organisation, individual responsibility and emotional maturity. As a result, labour migration has been accused of fostering a generation of young people who are reluctant to work and choose instead to live on remittances sent by their parents, frittering them away on luxuries, alcohol or drugs (Kyrchiv 2004)[9]. They do not see how hard their mothers and fathers work abroad to provide for their wellbeing. All they see is the remittances arriving from abroad and they regard their parents as ‘paycheck Moms’ (Tolstokorova 2010)[10], ‘personal money bags’ and ‘private ATMs’ providing them with banknotes. They come to associate international employment with easy money and la dolce vita, and to believe that money can only really be made abroad. Being financially better-off than children from non-migrant families, they are perceived by their peers as proof of this belief. A sociological poll of migrants’ children at several Kyiv high schools found that 86 per cent of them did not see their futures in Ukraine, and that 65 per cent of school-leavers wanted to leave Ukraine and work abroad as soon as possible (Kyrchiv 2004)[11]. This suggests that ‘Italian children’ may come to represent a lost generation that is unlikely to contribute directly to Ukraine’s national economy.

The term ‘Italian husbands’ denotes spouses left behind in Ukraine by female migrant workers. There is evidence of social alienation among such husbands, who are often unemployed and dependent on the remittances sent home by their wives. Alcohol- and drug-abuse are commonly-reported problems, as is unprotected sex which may have damaging health effects and lead to higher male mortality. The positive effect of this trend, however, is that many husbands of female migrants take on the roles of carers and housekeepers – if only for as long as their wives remain abroad – and this is changing the stereotypes of masculinity in the direction of responsible fatherhood.

In today’s Ukraine, zarobitchanstvo is perceived not merely as a spontaneous form of self-organisation of the population but as a frame of collective thinking. It is a specific Ukrainian phenomenon with its own social values. It is not just a means of making money, but a life-style choice that has implications for Ukrainian society at large.


  1. Zemtsov, I. 2001. Encyclopedia of Soviet Life. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers
  2. Haidinger, B. 2008. ‘Contingencies Among Households: Gendered Division of Labour and Transnational Household Organization: The Case of Ukrainians in Austria,’ in H. Lutz (ed.), Migration and Domestic Work. Farnham: Ashgate: 127-144
  3. GfK Ukraine 2008. The Contribution of Human Resources Development to Migration Policy in Ukraine. Kyiv: GfK (Gesellschaft für Konsumforschung) Ukraine
  4. Markov, I. (ed.) 2009. Na rozdorizhzhi. Analitychni materially kompleksnogho doslidzhennya procesiv ukrajins’koji trudovoji mighracii (krajiny Evropejs’kogho Sojuzu ta Rosijs’ka fedearacija (At the crossroads. Analytical materials from a complex study of Ukrainian labour migration [EU countries and the Russian Federation]). Lviv: Caritas, Institute of Ethnic Studies of the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine
  5. Shushpanov, P. 2009. Zovnizhnya trudova migracia naselennya regiounu: social’no-demografichny aspekt (na materialah ternopil’skoi oblasti) (External labour migration of regional population: socio-demographic aspect [materials from Ternopil Oblast]). Doctoral dissertation. Kyiv: National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, Institute for Demographic and Social Research
  6. Tolstokorova, 2011. 'Novye Zolushki v staroj Evrope: Formirovanie rynka domashnego obsluzhivajuschego tryda v Ukraine v kontekste global’noj ekonomiki zaboty i uhoda' ('New Cinderellas in Old Europe: The emergence of the labour market for domestic care services in Ukraine in the context of the global care economy'), in E. Yarskaya
  7. Savka, М. 2013. Mama po skajpu (Skype mommy). Lviv: Old Lion Publisher
  8. Majdanik, I.P. 2010. Ukrajinska molod’ na rynkah praci zarubiznyh derzhav (Ukrainian Youth on the Labour Markets of Foreign States). Kyiv: M. Ptukha Institute for Demographic and Social Research
  9. Kyrchiv, A. 2004. Trudova mighracia i nacional’na bezpeka Ukrajiny (Labour migration and national security in Ukraine), Ji-Magazine,
  10. Tolstokorova, A. 2010. ‘Where Have All the Mothers Gone? The Gendered Effect of Labour Migration and Transnationalism on the Institution of Parenthood in Ukraine’, The Anthropology of East Europe Review, 28(1): 184-214
  11. Kyrchiv, A. 2004. Trudova mighracia i nacional’na bezpeka Ukrajiny (Labour migration and national security in Ukraine), Ji-Magazine,