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Central Asian Migrants Losing Work As Russian Businesses Downsize Or Close

When Russia's busiest aviation hub, Sheremetyevo airport, was forced to close two of its four international terminals and suspend one of its runways in mid-March, it affected hundreds of Central Asian migrant workers employed in its cafes, restaurants, and shops.

Tooken Erkinov is one the four cooks who kept their jobs in a major restaurant at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport after it laid off most of its staff due to a lack of customers.

“We had 13 chefs before, but nine were [laid off]. Many cleaners, waiters, and kitchen helpers were laid off too,” says Erkinov, who comes from Kyrgyzstan, a remittance-dependent Central Asian nation.

“I kept my job for now, but I don’t know if I’m going to be paid in full,” he told RFE/RL.

The once busy restaurant is almost empty these days, Erkinov says, as most international flights have been cancelled due to the Western sanctions applied to Russia because of its invasion of Ukraine.

The crippling sanctions have forced many Russian businesses to downsize, while most Western companies have also halted their operations. Thousands of people have been left out of work.

The crisis is affecting not only Russians, but also millions of migrant workers from Central Asian countries like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

'Already Looking For Other Jobs'

Zebo and Nazarmamad, a married couple from Tajikistan, lost their jobs at a Moscow warehouse owned by a Western retail company earlier this month.

Zebo, 43, fears that it will only get worse for migrants, because many newly unemployed Russians “might soon start looking for jobs they didn’t want before, the jobs that were too low or too [labor intensive] for them.”

Most migrants are employed either in the service sector, in construction, or agriculture in jobs that often involve relatively low-paid physical work.

“If the war goes on for a few more months, Russians will have no choice; they’ll be less picky and take any job to survive,” Zebo says. “There will be even less work left for us migrants.”

Hundreds of Western consumer goods and retail firms, food chains, and energy companies said they were suspending their activities across Russia. Among them are Nestle, IKEA, Adidas, Nike, McDonald's, Burger King, Starbucks, Exxon Mobil, BP, and Shell.

Even many domestic companies had to scale back their business, with airports being hit the hardest.

Restaurant furniture is taped off at Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow after a terminal was closed in connection with a huge drop in traffic since Russia invaded Ukraine.
Restaurant furniture is taped off at Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow after a terminal was closed in connection with a huge drop in traffic since Russia invaded Ukraine.

Sheremetyevo -- Russia’s busiest airport -- saw its passenger traffic decrease significantly, forcing the company to close two of its four international terminals and suspend one of its runways in mid-March, state media said.

Hundreds of Kyrgyz migrants worked in the service sector at Sheremetyevo, in its numerous cafes, restaurants, and shops. Scores of them have lost their jobs. Those who have kept their jobs say they’re getting fewer shifts.

“Last week I worked only one day,” says Taalaigul, who works at an airport restaurant. “The venue is open, but we don’t have customers. My colleagues are already looking for other jobs.”

Kyrgyz migrant workers in Moscow recently set up a WhatsApp group to share information about job opportunities, says Nuriza Kadyrkanova, who was laid off along with some 40 others at a KFC fast food restaurant in Moscow. She, too, is looking for another job.

New Opportunities

Desperate to pay their rents and send money home to their families, many migrants say they have no time to waste.

Zebo and her husband have been in touch with their friends -- fellow Tajik migrant workers -- in the southern Russian city of Astrakhan to discuss the possibility of working in the farming sector.

“I used to grow watermelons in Astrakhan many years ago,” says Nazarmamad, a 46-year-old former teacher. “I might go back to Astrakhan.”

He believes the agriculture sector could be one of the most sanction-proof spheres as the Western embargos have hurt food imports. Russia has already suspended the export of its domestically grown wheat and other crops.

Meanwhile, 22-year-old Nursultan Zulpuev, a start-up business owner from Kyrgyzstan, is hoping to turn the crisis into a new opportunity.

Two months ago, Zulpuev opened a cafe in a Moscow shopping center that offers Kyrgyz, Russian, and Japanese cuisine. And his business has boomed since a nearby KFC restaurant was closed down earlier this month.

Kyrgyz entrepreneur Nursultan Zulpuev
Kyrgyz entrepreneur Nursultan Zulpuev

Zulpuev, who employs six Kyrgyz migrant workers, is planning to open similar cafes in other Moscow shopping malls.

“Those KFC and McDonald's had thousands of customers. Now, we have an opportunity to attract their clients,” Zulpuev told RFE/RL. “Many Muscovites don’t cook at home. It’s a chance for migrants now to open a business.”

The majority of Central Asian migrants are expected to stay in Russia despite the declining job market and the badly weakened ruble. They don’t have better alternatives in their home countries, which also suffer from chronic unemployment and low wages.

But according to Tolkunbek Akmatov, the head of the Kyrgyz diaspora organization Nookat in Moscow, some migrants are concerned about rumors that conscript-age men might be forcibly sent to war.

“They want to return to Kyrgyzstan, but the question is what to do in Kyrgyzstan, how to survive there without work,” Akmatov said. “Many migrants are distraught about the current situation.”

According to Russian government figures, there were more than 7.8 million registered migrants from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan in 2021.

Remittances accounted for 30 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in Tajikistan and nearly 28 percent in Kyrgyzstan last year, according to the World Bank.

Uzbekistan, the most populous country in Central Asia, received about $7.6 billion -- 11.6 percent of the nation's GDP -- in remittances between January and November 2021. Russia accounted for most of the money sent from abroad.

RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service correspondents Elvira Budaichieva and Kunduz Kyzylzharova contributed to this report.
  • 16x9 Image

    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.

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    RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service

    RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service is an award-winning, multimedia source of independent news and informed debate, covering major stories and underreported topics, including women, minority rights, high-level corruption, and religious radicalism.