When jobs are so scarce at home that many people are forced to seek work abroad, why are so many Chinese entering the local workforce?
That's the question being asked by many workers and activists in Kyrgyzstan, who are calling on the government to reserve available jobs for Kyrgyz citizens.
Urmatbek Shergaziev, a civil activist from the Kochkor district of Kyrgyzstan's eastern Naryn region, says that "it's hard for ordinary Kyrgyz to understand why the authorities issue work quotas for foreigners."
Shergaziev adds: "There is no shortage of people willing to take those jobs, but companies won't hire them. People would prefer to have jobs at home, instead of wandering around Russia searching for work and feeling humiliated."
According to the Labor, Migration, and Youth Ministry, Chinese account for about 70 percent of all foreigners officially registered under Kyrgyzstan's quota system, which allows for about 13,000 foreign workers a year.
The Chinese Embassy in Bishkek says there are about 20,000 Chinese migrants working various jobs in joint Chinese-Kyrgyz companies as well as markets, restaurants, and other workplaces in Kyrgyzstan. But local experts say the real number of Chinese workers is much higher -- around 50,000, according to former Labor, Migration, and Youth Minister Aigul Ryskulova.
Would Kyrgyz Even Take The Jobs?
That's too many, critics say, when Kyrgyzstan is dealing with high unemployment and low wages. Out of the country's population of 5.5 million, an estimated 500,000 people leave the country every year to seek work in Russia and Kazakhstan.
While official unemployment figures stand at around 8 percent, Bishkek-based economist Azamat Akeleev says the statistics do not reflect reality. "People who are engaged in seasonal jobs, such as migrants working in Russia, are listed as fully employed," Akeleev says. "But in reality they have left the country because of the lack of jobs."
But others suggest that the jobs being taken in Kyrgyzstan by foreign workers are the type that locals are not willing to take. Labor, Migration, and Youth Ministry spokesperson Doskul Bekmurzaev told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that many Kyrgyz preferred seasonal jobs in Russia, where they can make more money in a shorter period of time.
"If you travel to Issyk-Kul on the Bishkek-Torugart highway, which is currently being built as part of a joint state Chinese-Kyrgyz project, you will see that I'm not taking sides, but Chinese workers start work very early in the morning and work hard," Bekmurzaev said. "Working conditions are not easy there. Hence, our citizens prefer to work in Russia, instead."
Some of the more desired jobs are given to foreign workers under contractual arrangements with foreign companies. Sultan Sarigaev, who oversees the foreign investment department at the Transport and Communication Ministry, says Chinese investors as a rule "bring their own specialists for specific type of jobs that require certain qualifications."
"It's not very simple just to recruit local workers," Sarigaev adds. "The Chinese bring their own machinery along with engineers, monitors, and other qualified specialists to operate their equipment."
According to Sarigaev, joint Kyrgyz-Chinese projects usually reserve 70 percent of the available jobs to Chinese citizens and offer the remaining 30 percent for local hiring.
Labor, Migration, and Youth Minister Aliyasbek Alymkulov insists that every deal with Chinese investors has been signed with the best interests of local workers in mind. He says Kyrgyz officials have ensured that joint Chinese-Kyrgyz projects, such as the construction of the Kara Balta oil refinery west of Bishkek and an electricity-transmission station in the northern Chui Province, provide jobs for local workers.
In the case of those projects, he notes, most of the local employees quit within months, complaining about harsh working conditions and low wages.
Written and reported by Farangis Najibullah, based on reporting by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service correspondent Bakyt Asanov