Dignity is Good Business
The day Murat started his new job in a new country, the border closed behind him. It was March 2020, and a global pandemic had just been declared. Nearly four years later, he believes he found the right place at the right time.
Before migrating to the industrial town of Utena, Lithuania, Murat sold fish in a market more than 2,500 miles away in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. In the summer months when the fish market got slow, he would moonlight in a butcher shop next door, an experience he hoped would cut a path to a more promising career.
“To be honest, before I came here, I was offered to go to England,” Murat said.
But the process of getting a job in his field in the United Kingdom was not so simple for a Russian-speaker from Central Asia.
“You had to take English or something—the process was long—it took a year and a half to get a visa there,” Murat said.
Fortunately, a staffing agency was looking for workers at a meat processing plant in Lithuania, and the employment test seemed perfectly-designed for Murat: demonstrating knife skills and proficiency with meat cutting.
Murat is one of an increasing number of workers from former Soviet countries who are discovering career opportunities in Lithuania, which has been beneficial for Murat, his family, and for Lithuanians. While he marvels at how much more sophisticated the plant is than the butcher shop back home, he jokes that people in Uzbekistan mostly ask about how much money he’s making. He says it’s a good income that allows him to send funds home. He’s also saving for the future by investing in cryptocurrencies.
Barriers to Progress
With an aging population and a shrinking workforce, Lithuania needs people like Murat to contribute to the country’s long-term growth and opportunity. After Lithuania regained its own independence from the Soviet Union in the 1990s, its population began a long trend of decline. Many Lithuanians have shared the same experience as Murat, going abroad seeking better opportunities. A survey of employers shows 92% of Lithuanian businesses are experiencing staff shortages.
“Lithuania is expected to become the second oldest society in Europe after Italy in 30 years’ time, which is very scary,” said Aneta Vainė, Vice President of the Lithuanian Free Market Institute (LFMI).
LFMI, an Atlas Network partner, saw a need to work with the business community and lawmakers to improve Lithuania’s labor migration policies.
“We started seeing how our companies are struggling with labor shortages and not being able to respond to the growing global demand. They lacked manpower and many of our companies were on the brink of closing down,” Aneta said.
One factor that worsened the labor shortage is that workers from countries outside the European Union, like Murat, were faced with barriers to accepting an available job in Lithuania. The country’s work permitting process for migrants was costly, time-consuming, and burdensome.
Despite the vast gap between available workers and open jobs, government regulations required a job to remain open for a period of time in hopes that candidates from Lithuania would apply. Migrants also could not apply for a work permit unless they were already physically present in the country.
A Unifying Cause
As policymakers debated how to create a more sensible labor policy, events in the region reminded Lithuanians of how many people would also want to enjoy the same freedom and prosperity they do. People from neighboring Belarus sought to escape the clutches of their authoritarian government, and in 2022, when Russia accelerated its invasion of Ukraine, Lithuania also opened its doors to Ukrainian refugees. Nearly 31,000 Belarusians and 84,000 Ukrainians arrived that year under emergency measures.
“I think our Lithuanian society has seen with their own eyes that migrant workers want to work and to earn their living in a very dignified and honest way,” Aneta said.
The positive experience of welcoming so many newcomers to Lithuania assisted the LFMI team and business leaders in making the case for reform to the country’s policies.
“Our government institutions saw how pointless the regulations were,” Aneta said.
“We slashed visa rules, simplified them, cut the time it takes to get permits. And if this is possible to do for Belarusians—for Ukrainians—why not do it for others? So it's been very transformational, I think, for our economy and for public perceptions.”
Following reforms to Lithuania’s labor migration laws, new residency permits are being issued at a noticeably higher rate. While there were 1,453 successful applicants from Murat’s home country of Uzbekistan in 2022, there were already 1,852 in just the first half of 2023.
If workers keep up the pace, the number of migrants from countries other than Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia will double in comparison to the previous year. Former Soviet countries including Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Moldova are among the top contributors of new talent, but countries including India and Turkey are also rising on the list.
LFMI’s impactful effort providing freedom for entrepreneurs in Lithuania and workers from around the world has led not only to their recognition as an Atlas Network 2023 Smart Bets partner, but also to their nomination for the prestigious 2023 Templeton Freedom Award. This year isn’t the first time they have been recognized for their world-class work, however. LFMI won the Templeton Freedom Award in 2014 and 2016, and co-founder and president Elena Leontjeva was named the recipient of the 2022 Sir Antony Fisher Achievement Award.
“Atlas Network has served as an extraordinary platform for us to feel that we are a great movement—a great force that can make a difference,” said Aneta.
“They have done a great job in inspiring us to know that the sky’s the limit to what we can do, with all the commitment and dedication and passion that we have for the ideas of individual liberty and responsibility,” Aneta said.