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Tajikistan: Unemployed Forced To Become Migrants Or Participate In 'Slave' Markets

Tajik and Russian officials are expected to sign an agreement later this month that provides social and legal protections to Tajik migrant laborers working in Russia. Due to a lack of work in Tajikistan, thousands of Tajiks travel to Russia every year in search of seasonal jobs. While welcoming the agreement, many Tajiks say that Tajikistan should create more jobs at home to solve the problem of unemployment.

Prague, 12 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Some 60,000 people are officially registered as unemployed in Tajikistan. It is obvious that the actual figure is much higher, however.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, unemployment has become a major problem in almost all of the newly independent states. Many factories that were built according to Soviet centralized planning have been closed, with thousands of workers left jobless.

Tajikistan's labor and employment minister, Mamadshoh Ilolov, said it is unlikely that many of these industries will ever function again. "We needed those factories and their products during the Soviet times. But no one buys their output anymore. We don't need those factories. Besides, their technology is very old now," Ilolov said.

Most state-funded organizations, such as schools and hospitals, never closed, but due to low wages, many of their employees leave their jobs for months at a time to make money elsewhere. It is common in Tajikistan -- especially in rural areas -- for male employees in secondary schools and hospitals to leave their jobs from spring through autumn. Many of them travel to Russia in search of seasonal work.

Thousands of Tajik migrant laborers -- qualified doctors, teachers, and engineers among them -- work on Russian farms or construction sites. They have no legal protection or civil rights. In many cases, employers do not sign agreements with these migrant workers, and wages are agreed verbally. Since there are no better options in their homeland, migrant laborers usually agree to such terms simply to earn money.

Tajik officials say there around 300,000 Tajiks working in Russia and other former Soviet republics. However, some independent sources, such as the Tajik Economic Research Institute, estimate there are probably close to 1 million Tajik laborers abroad.

Some Tajiks who seek seasonal jobs remain at home. In the past four or five years, so-called labor markets have emerged in major cities in Tajikistan. Unemployed men from all over the country come to the market and wait for an employer to offer them a temporary job, such as cleaning or painting houses or building fences. Many Tajiks see these job markets as modern slavery.

Salim Mirzoev came to the labor market in the capital, Dushanbe, from the southern Vose region. He said he makes money at the market but that it is highly unstable income. "I used to work as a builder in the Soviet times and had a comfortable life," he said. "Now we are left jobless. I want our president to help resume work at building sites and create jobs for us. Here in the job market, I sometimes find work when I am lucky. But sometimes I wait for days for someone to come and offer me a job. Can anyone solve our problem?"

Ahtam Jurakhonov is a teacher with a university diploma. But with only a teacher's salary, he said he could not afford to feed his family and was forced to quit his job. "Teachers receive 30 somonies [about $10] a month. I have four children and old parents to support. I had to come to the job market," he told RFE/RL. "When someone offers me a job, I earn up to 15 somonies a day, but it is not always like that. Tajikistan has so many factories, such as the electro-chemical plant in Yavan district. Why they don't function?"

While unemployment is a major issue in every region of Tajikistan, it is particularly severe in the eastern province of Badakhshon.

Saifulloh Saifullobekov, a resident of the Ishkashim district of Badakhshon, travels seasonally to the northern city of Khojand to make a living. With its many industrial enterprises, the northern province of Sughd is considered to be a relatively prosperous region of Tajikistan.

"Unemployment is the biggest problem facing our youth. I completed secondary education in 1993 and have been looking for a job ever since. You need a lot of money to get a higher education. The unemployment rate is even higher in my hometown of Ishkashim. That's why I came [to Khojand] to find a job," Saifullobekov said.

According to local observers, some 60 percent of Tajik youth don't have permanent jobs. Saifulloh Safarov, an expert on social affairs, told RFE/RL that the issue of unemployment needs to be approached from a different point of view. He said many qualified professionals need to undergo retraining courses to learn new skills and how to adapt themselves to new situations.

"Special courses will be set up for those doctors or teachers who do not want or cannot get a job according to their qualifications. They will learn other skills, and the government should support them during this period," Safarov said.

Tajik Labor Minister Ilolov agrees. He said his ministry has compiled a list of professions and skills that are in high demand and has advised the country's colleges to update their programs accordingly.

Ilovov said the new situation requires a new mentality, too. He told RFE/RL that many people from the former Soviet republics are used to the government solving their problems for them. Ilolov said the developing private sector in Tajikistan is capable of creating new jobs.

"Tajikistan's future rests with the private sector. We should not expect the government to provide everything for us. Indeed, our international donors want to boost Tajikistan's private sector. For instance, the European Union is investing 3 million euros into the agricultural system of Khatlon province. The money will be spent on the private sector and to further the privatization process in the region's agricultural system," Ilolov said.

The Tajik government recently introduced a special program whose aim is to reduce the level of unemployment in the country over the next two years. According to the program, some 140,000 new jobs are expected to be created by 2005. The program provides more job opportunities for youth and women.

Ilolov said it will take at least 10 years to reduce unemployment in Tajikistan to acceptable levels. In the meantime, hundreds of Tajiks -- such as Saifullobekov from Ishkoshim or Mirzoev from Voce -- spend their days in labor markets far from home, waiting for anyone who will offer them work. They say they can't wait for a decade, that people need to live and eat today.

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.