Pulling the plug on remote work
February 9, 2023
Thousands of Russian citizens who fled war and the economic impact of sanctions last year continue to work remotely for Russia-based companies. Some officials want to bring that to an end. 
Russian authorities have signaled that they may introduce restrictions on working remotely from abroad. In December, Federation Council Senator Andrey Klishas – who in recent years has sponsored dozens of repressive laws – announced that work was finished on a bill that would make life “less comfortable” for citizens living outside of the country, but who continue to work remotely for Russia-based companies. As of this digest’s publication, the bill had not yet been introduced into the State Duma for voting.

Last year, around 100,000 IT specialists left Russia, relocating to places like Armenia, Georgia, Turkey, and Kazakhstan. Many continue to work remotely for Russian companies. The Bell writes that about 10 percent of the overall number of employees at IT companies in Russia now live outside of the country. According to the international staffing firm ANCOR, around three in four Russian companies faced problems with their employees leaving in 2022. Likewise, as Kommersant reports, the IT labor market in Russia continues to experience an acute shortage of middle and senior level employees.

While no precise details of the floated remote work restrictions have been revealed, Deputy Head of the State Duma United Russia faction, Andrey Isaev, said lawmakers want to make it so that tax non-residents of Russia – which includes citizens who left the country – will no longer be able to conclude employment contracts for remote work with Russian companies in a number of professions and fields. A person loses tax-resident status if he stays outside of Russia for a total of more than 183 days in a calendar year.

In an interview with Vedomosti, Isaev listed several fields where employees may be affected by the yet-to-be-introduced bill. This includes the defense sector, security systems, and finance. Meanwhile, Senator Klishas said that restrictions on working from abroad should be introduced for those employed in "sensitive areas'' of the economy. His examples – different from Isaev’s – include transportation security and the public sector.

Earlier, Russia’s Ministry of Digital Development opposed restrictions on remote work. The head of that ministry, Maksut Shadayev, said he was “against draconian measures toward workers that left [Russia]. We should create conditions so they [IT workers] want to return and work… There shouldn’t be any kind of restrictions.” However, Shadayev added that individual companies should be able to decide for themselves whether to allow their employees to work remotely from abroad out of security concerns.

So, too, has the head of Russia’s Federation Council, Valentina Matviyenko, pushed back against wide-sweeping restrictions. But, somewhat similar to Shadayev, she argues that restrictions for specific companies might be introduced at some point in the future. In her words, it is wrong to frame the issue as a punishment against Russians who left the country over the past year. “The idea behind such a law is certainly not about that at all – we’re not talking about discrimination,” she said. Matviyenko’s comment appeared to be a not-so-subtle rebuke of Senator Klishas, who, in proposing restrictions to remote work, also implied that people who fled the country during mobilization are deserving of moral condemnation. In this sense, there appears to be open discord among high-ranking officials over the way those working abroad should be treated.

According to analysts quoted by The Bell, a recent surge in job openings for the IT sector has been caused in part due to the news that restrictions on remote work are just on the horizon, and so employees are quitting their jobs and looking for work in foreign companies.

The Ministry of Digital Development previously warned that any kind of ban on remote work for IT specialists who relocated to other countries could slow down the development of online services in Russia. That ministry is reportedly developing a package of measures for incentivizing IT specialists to return, which includes deferment from mobilization and free flights back to Russia. Among the proposed measures is also an increase on personal income tax for those who work abroad, which according to experts quoted by Kommersant, may actually lead to widespread quitting by employees in the IT sector.

Last year’s mass exodus of highly-qualified workers spells a serious brain drain for Russia’s economy, which has alarmed authorities. During a speech to the State Duma in April of last year, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin made a desperate plea to IT specialists to remain in the country. “Don’t be afraid… Everything will be fine here [in Russia]. You will be able to work for your country, for your company, earn a decent income and live comfortably.”

At the time, the government introduced several measures in response to the outflow of IT workers. For companies, this included a tax exemption on income for up to three years. Meanwhile, individuals aged 22-40 employed in the IT sector were promised preferential mortgages. However, these incentives did not seem to have much of an effect, especially following Vladimir Putin’s partial mobilization announcement on September 21, which led to hundreds of thousands of people – mostly young men – fleeing the country.

In mid-January, news outlets reported that the social media company VKontakte asked its employees living abroad to return to Russia. However, sources within the company said that only some staff were asked to return, but they did not specify whom specifically. Similarly, in December, reports circulated that Yandex requested its employees working abroad to return to Russia, but the tech giant’s press service later denied these claims.

Digest by Mack Tubridy for the Russia.Post editorial team.
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