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Central Asia: In Search Of Work, Migrants Endure Tough Conditions

  • Zamira Eshanova

Difficult economic conditions are forcing many residents of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to leave their countries in search of jobs. Kazakhstan and Russia have become the destinations of choice for hundreds of thousands of labor migrants. This economic migration is a relatively new phenomenon in the region, where the movement of labor had previously been regulated by the Soviet state.

Prague, 28 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Throughout history, what is today Uzbekistan served as Central Asia's geographic, economic, and cultural center. Migrant laborers were attracted by the promise of good jobs in the country's relatively prosperous cities of Samarkand, Tashkent, Bukhara, and Kokand.

Today, the economic center of the region has shifted to Russia and oil-rich Kazakhstan, the destinations of choice for tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of labor migrants, mostly from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Official unemployment statistics in these countries range from 10 to 20 percent of the workforce, but the real rates are much higher.

In their quest for employment, many of these labor migrants are forced to endure unenviable conditions. One Uzbek businessman described a situation he recently encountered: "We have recently visited our friends in Kazakhstan. In their house, in their land, Uzbek men were working. During the conversation, our host said that they brought them from [what he called] a 'slave market.' It appears that Uzbek men organized a manual labor market in Kazakhstan and our Kazakh brothers called this market a 'slave market.' This is a big shame for [the Uzbek nation]. I think now the real unemployment rate [in Uzbekistan] is higher than 70 percent, and young people have no other choice but to become modern slaves in neighboring countries."

There are no official statistics about labor migrants in any of the five Central Asian countries. But according to estimates by the International Organization for Migration, based in Geneva, some 500,000 Tajiks leave their country each year in search of employment. Some experts believe the figure is comparable in Uzbekistan.

Kazakhstan has no means to regulate the influx of workers. A Kazakh expert on the labor situation, who asked to remain anonymous, said the migrants fill a demand for low-paid, unskilled work, which local Kazakhs consider to be beneath them: "They work in low-paid, unskilled labor fields. These are mostly in construction, on tobacco and cotton plantations. In general, agriculture and construction. In the opinion of locals, this is very hard work for very low wages. The average salary in Kazakhstan is $120 [per month], while it is $5 in Tajikistan. You can understand why they would agree to get any job."

Most migrants work in Kazakhstan illegally. In order to work legally, a foreign migrant would need an official invitation from an employer. After obtaining a work permit, the worker could then receive a residence permit. But this is a long and complicated process, which is why both employers and workers prefer keeping everything under the table.

As a result, employers are able to exploit foreign migrants, offering them less money than they would give to a local resident. Migrants avoid paying taxes on their earnings, but it's a situation in which they are turned into virtual slaves.

"These people have no rights. They can, in principle, reach an oral agreement with an employer, but there is no guarantee that they will get paid, or that they will be able to take their earned money home with them. Most of them have no rights at all. They are not protected at all. It is hard to imagine what happens to them when they get sick, etc."

Despite the exploitative conditions, migrants from poverty-stricken Tajikistan and Uzbekistan say they are happy for any work that allows them to provide for their families.

"Muborak" is the mother of six children from the Syrdaryo region of Uzbekistan, which borders Kazakhstan. She said that she and her neighbors are dependent on the seasonal work that Kazakh farmers offer on their cotton plantations. Muborak talked about a recent trip to Kazakhstan to work: "Mainly, we worked in a cotton field. For each hectare of cultivated land, we were paid 1,000 tenges -- in our money, 8,000 soms (less than $7). Here, in Uzbekistan, we are told that we will be paid 3,000 soms for each hectare, but we never get this money. Before going to Kazakhstan, I worked in two places. I was too tired to ask for the money I earned. I still haven't got this money."

She said the Uzbek migrants were well fed by their Kazakh employers and adds that, in exchange, workers labored for 14 to 16 hours a day to earn more money. She continued: "All of [the workers in the cotton fields of Kazakhstan] are Uzbeks. I've heard that others are as impoverished as I am. Most of them are women. [There are] few men. Women feed their families by earning money here. There are a lot of children, too. Some bring their 10- and 11-year-old children. I saw these children earning 44,000 tenges (approximately $300) within 13 days. They work as hard as adults."

Experts say the issue of labor migration is not yet included on the political agendas of Central Asia governments. Observers say the governments of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan tacitly support the migration of their labor forces. These workers provide their families back home with money, thus decreasing social tensions in the country.

As for the Kazakh government, observers believe it is extremely difficult for Astana to control the movement of migrants because of its long borders and the visa-free travel among the nations of the region. In addition, the shadow labor market is said to be a huge source of corruption for officials.

The massive Central Asian labor migration is creating similar problems for Russia. Galina Vitkovskaya, a Moscow research coordinator for the International Organization for Migration, believes the only solution is amnesty for the illegal workers and a general legalization of labor migration: "In some other countries, let's say, there are amnesty programs. Most of these labor migrants stay, work in Russia and send their money to their families for a long time. Russia is losing a lot in this regard. Russia is losing taxes; it's losing control over the situation, in the end, when the scale of labor migration has reached 5 million. But still none of the officials wants to hear about programs of labor amnesty. Authorities are simply afraid of words such as amnesty and legalization of labor migration."

A new labor-migration law is due to come into force on 1 November in Russia. According to the law, migrants must apply for a labor-migration card and pay a duty to enter the country legally. Migrants without such a card will be deported.

Meanwhile, the Eurasian Economic Community initiated by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev has proposed to make labor-migration issues a top priority of regional integration efforts.