Being a state worker in Turkmenistan comes with many strings attached, with officials often ordering employees to pay for various government-backed charities and projects, to walk in parades, or help clean the streets.
Workers across the Central Asian country most recently had to give a big chunk of their monthly wages to former authoritarian President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov’s charity fund to allegedly raise money for the victims of the earthquakes in Turkey.
Two employees of state-run cultural centers in Turkmenistan’s western Balkan Province, speaking on condition of anonymity, said officials demanded that they donate half of their nearly $430 monthly salaries for the fund.
“Some of the staff tried to argue that they can’t afford the payment, but the boss told them to pay or submit their resignation letters,” one worker said. “So everybody paid.”
Losing a job is not a good option for public-sector workers, as there are few to none alternatives in Turkmenistan, where unemployment is rampant.
Food Shortages, Surging Inflation
Despite the country’s abundant natural gas reserves -- the fourth-largest in the world -- the majority of its population lives in poverty, faces daily food shortages, skyrocketing inflation, and a severe lack of jobs.
Many blame corruption and mismanagement for the government’s failure to allow most people to have a better quality of life.
As the economy has continually faltered in the past number of years, the government has increasingly scrapped benefits and subsidies -- such as free gas, electricity, and water. The price of subsidized food -- a lifeline for many Turkmen -- has gone up in government stores in recent years.
The authorities, meanwhile, are increasingly forcing people to pay for the services the government would normally provide at no cost.
State workers in the provinces must pay for the refurbishment of their office buildings, while teachers and parents must pay for annual renovations of public schools and nurseries.
In an infamous case in the southeastern Mary Province in 2021, school administrations even forced the orphans who rely on state benefits to provide some of this money for a school renovation.
Officials told the relatives or guardians of the orphans: “you get financial support from the state, you can easily give about $30 for school repairs once a year,” RFE/RL correspondents reported at the time, citing eyewitnesses.
The average state benefit in Turkmenistan is about $122 a month, according to government media. The average monthly salary is $715, which many Turkmen say is barely enough for food and utilities amid rising living costs.
According to many state employees, they are routinely ordered to donate for random projects, such as the purchase of tree saplings, national flags, decorated New Year’s trees, and books by the former president.
Each employee must also subscribe to state media publications, although there is no guarantee they receive any of the magazines and newspapers they are forced to pay for.
In the summer, regional government workers are often ordered to purchase holiday packages to the resort town of Awaza on Turkmenistan’s Caspian coast, where most hotels are largely empty because of their high prices.
Everyone Loves A Parade?
The Turkmen who receive wages from the state -- including pensioners -- are required to volunteer their time in return. They take part in various state-organized festivals, exhibitions, parades, as well as health and wellness events as the government tries to project an image of prosperity and happiness.
State media often depicts groups of elderly men -- immaculately dressed in brand-new, identical national costumes -- attending official meetings in state buildings or open-air gatherings.
Similarly, women -- clad in colorful national dress and headgear -- frequently appear at exhibitions and other events. They have to pay for the pricey costumes they are required to wear to the events.
Ahead of a visit by the country’s president, provincial governments often take state employees from their day jobs to prepare the city -- to sweep the streets, rake grassy areas, and plant new trees.
Money and time are not the only things state employees and even other workers in Turkmenistan must sacrifice as part of their jobs.
They also must give up some of their already restricted freedoms.
Many state workers and their families have been forced to return their travel passports as Turkmen authorities try to prevent people from leaving the increasingly isolated country that has also faced a steep population decline in recent years.
Women working for the government must also follow certain rules in order to keep their jobs, such as not coloring their eyebrows or using nail polish, wearing only minimal makeup, and not undergoing any cosmetic surgery or enhancements.
Men working in state agencies are prohibited from coloring their graying hair and are also banned from growing a beard or wearing their hair long.
The informal bans have been announced and enforced by employers and their managers.
“All of these restrictions, expenses, payments, and donations just to keep a job that doesn’t pay much in the first place,” said a Turkmen citizen currently living in Istanbul. He spoke on condition of anonymity fearing potential backlash for his family in Turkmenistan from authorities.
He said people “are tolerating the situation” because they don’t see a better alternative, such as a prosperous private sector or an easy way to leave the country.
“They have to endure it to survive in the circumstances they live in,” he said.