Uzbek Prime Minister Abdullo Aripov has threatened to close down all the privately owned employment agencies in the country -- and for now that might be a good idea.
Shavkat Mirziyoev, the president of Uzbekistan since September 2016, has vowed to pull his country’s economy out of the stagnation it had fallen into under his predecessor, Islam Karimov, the country's first president who died in 2016.
And in Mirziyoev's efforts to kick-start the economy there were bound to be some rough patches.
The case of privately owned employment agencies helping people get jobs in Europe and East Asia is one example.
On February 19, Aripov met with clients of the private employment agency Human.
RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, has been reporting about swindling employment agencies for many months. Human happens to be the most notorious of them.
In late September 2019, charges of fraud were filed against the agency by 52 clients who between November 2018 and September 2019 had given money to Human to find them jobs in countries such as Germany, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Turkey, and Japan.
Each paid a fee between 18 million to 35 million Uzbek soms (some $1,800 to $3,700). The agency pocketed the money but not one of the clients received a job abroad.
There are officially some 2 million people from Uzbekistan working as migrant laborers abroad, most in Russia. Some believe the actual figure could be twice that number. It has been that way for more than a decade.
Migrant laborers send several billion dollars in remittances to Uzbekistan every year, but the truth is that for many of these laborers the conditions are tough and wages are usually far from generous.
A chance to work in a country in Central Europe -- or in Japan or South Korea -- sounds like a better deal and worth paying agencies such as Human the equivalent of an average yearly salary as a finder’s fee.
Another private employment agency called World Work promised to send clients to work in Bulgaria where they would earn 800 euros (about $880) a month with free room and board. The agency did send some clients to Bulgaria, but there was no job or anything else waiting for them there.
In December 2018, Ozodlik spoke to Orif Rustamov, a 42-year-old resident of Uzbekistan’s southern Kashkadarya Province. He and some family members found a Tashkent-based agency called International Experience on the Internet and in April 2019 they went to Tashkent and signed a deal.
For $4,000 each, the agency pledged to find them employment in the Czech Republic within three months. After eight months had passed there was no word from the agency and no sign of their money.
In November, Ozodlik reported on a private employment agency in the city of Navoi that had cheated 211 clients out of more than $66,000 in total. Those clients were promised work in South Korea with monthly salaries of around $2,000.
The press service of the Employment and Labor Ministry released a warning to people on August 14 (it even included an exclamation point) about employment agencies that collected 100 percent of their service fees in advance and vowed to close down any such agencies. It also listed eight agencies that were having their licenses pulled.
The agency in Navoi and World Work were on the list; Human was not. The same list shows that seven of those agencies received their licenses between December 17, 2018, and April 12, 2019 (the issue date for the license of the eighth agency -- Unistaff xususiy bandlik agentligi -- was not given).
It is also worth noting that in November 2018, just before those licenses began being issued, the director, deputy director, and several other officials in the Employment and Labor Ministry's agency for foreign migrant laborers were detained and charged with a series of crimes, among them, taking bribes to send migrant workers to South Korea.
In late October 2019, the lower house of parliament said an investigation had determined that of 65 licenses given to private employment agencies promising jobs abroad, 30 had not sent even one client to work outside Uzbekistan.
That brings us back to Prime Minister Aripov meeting with the people who had been fleeced by Human. Aripov said a presidential order would provide some compensation to 1,086 people who lost money to unscrupulous private employment agencies.
It was unclear how many other victims other such agencies claimed.
Human's license was revoked in September 2019 and on January 27, 2020, a Tashkent court sentenced the agency’s director, Shohnur Fayzullaev, to 10 years in prison.
Mirziyoev has been promising big reforms -- including economic -- as he attempts to repair the damage Karimov did while serving as Uzbek president from the country's independence in 1991 until 2016.
Perhaps some of the greatest damage Karimov did in his later years in power was to increasingly isolate Uzbekistan and keep everything under state control.
Despite being independent for nearly 30 years, Uzbekistan finds itself facing problems it faced in the first few years after independence when the country experimented with privatization.
Other former Soviet republics have gone through the process of privatizing businesses and they, too, encountered difficulties that required new legislation and rules.
In every country there are dishonest people who are quick to see the possible personal gain of preying on their unwary countrymen when opportunities present themselves.
Allowing private employment companies to open was among the many moves Mirziyoev’s government has tried, but clearly more regulation is needed.
The law that allowed the creation of privately owned employment agencies came into effect on September 27, 2018, and in roughly one year licenses were issued to some 60 agencies, many of which focused solely on ripping off people.
Mirziyoev’s government can be credited with recognizing the problem, working to correct it, and even offering compensation to some of those who were tricked.
It is an important lesson and one that hopefully will be learned and taken into consideration as Uzbekistan moves ahead with reforms.