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Uzbekistan's Test For Wannabe Labor Migrants Sparks Controversy

A question from the South Korean guest-worker test for Uzbeks.
A question from the South Korean guest-worker test for Uzbeks.

An effort to present Uzbek migrant laborers in the best light possible to their South Korean hosts has cost a high-level official his job.

Foreign Migration Agency Director Ulughbek Nazarov was dismissed on April 18 along with his agency's brainchild -- a general knowledge examination given to Uzbeks hoping to work in South Korea under a bilateral labor agreement.

The test, given online to tens of thousands of Uzbeks in early April, has been widely criticized, with some saying the questions were "strange and meaningless" and entirely irrelevant to work and life in South Korea.

Among the questions, according to the semiofficial Gazeta.Uz, were one about a 13th-century Mongolian emperor: "Which dynasty did the Mongolian Kublai Khan create after conquering China?"

Another question asked "Which year did Ahmad die?" while leaving it unclear who, exactly, Ahmad was.

"At what altitude are the coniferous forests of the Turkestan Range located?" another asked, while another was about an 11th century Persian poet and philosopher: "What distance did Nasir Khusraw travel during his two journeys that lasted seven years?"

The test was compulsory for all applicants vying to fill a quota for 3,000 jobs offered by Seoul this year. They were also required to take a Korean-language exam.

The questions sparked angry comments on social media in Uzbekistan, where jobs are in short supply and millions of people depend on labor migration and remittances. Nearly 90,000 people have applied for the jobs in South Korea, leaving some 30 people competing for each spot.

"Idiotic questions, something needs to be done about them," Facebook user Temur Tohirov wrote on the Foreign Migration Agency's Facebook page.

"What nonsense is this?...'What was the population of Africa in 2012? How many tree species exist in Africa?' How relevant are Africa and the policies of other countries to this particular test? We are going to [South Korea] as simple migrants, not as professors," wrote Facebook user "Nigisha Nigi from Samarkand."

Social media users also complained that they experienced problems while trying to download their application forms from the migration agency's website, which was apparently overwhelmed with high traffic.

The same day its head was dismissed, the Foreign Migration Agency defended the quiz, reportedly saying the questions were designed to select the best candidates to represent Uzbekistan abroad.

"An Uzbek citizen who goes to South Korea or other countries for work becomes a representative of our nation, the face of our country," the agency said on April 18. "Foreigners would judge Uzbekistan and Uzbeks based on the migrant's knowledge, talent, upbringing, moral qualities, and general knowledge," the agency representatives told reporters.

According to the agency, the questions were taken from Uzbekistan's school curriculum for 7th- to 9th-grade students.

Despite its defense of the text, however, the migration agency announced on its Facebook page that test results had been annulled due to "serious technical" errors during the registration process that caused "misunderstandings and objections" among the applicants.

It promised to launch a new and improved registration process and introduce new tests for potential labor migrants bound for South Korea.

There are hundreds of thousands of Uzbek migrants working in many different countries, most of them performing blue-collar jobs.
There are hundreds of thousands of Uzbek migrants working in many different countries, most of them performing blue-collar jobs.

According to Uzbek state media, 27,000 Uzbek workers have taken jobs in South Korea since 2007.Tashkent and Seoul first agreed on annual job quotas for Uzbek migrants in 2006.

Some 17,000 Uzbek workers currently work legally in South Korea, the majority of them engaged in factory jobs.

However, the real figures are believed to be higher, as many Uzbek workers don't return home after their official six-year job contracts expire.

Uzbekistan sought close economic ties with South Korea under late Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who chose Seoul for his first foreign trip after his rubber-stump reelection in 2015.

Some 60 documents pertaining to trade, investment, economic cooperation, and other spheres, with an estimated total worth of $7.7 billion, were signed during the trip.

South Korea is one of the major foreign investors in Uzbekistan, with investments covering trade, communications, natural gas and solar energy, pharmaceuticals, mining, and electronic products, among others.

South Korean stakes in Uzbek natural gas development projects are reportedly worth $12 billion. As Tashkent seeks to diversify its energy sources, Seoul has agreed to invest $300 million to build Uzbekistan’s first solar power plant by 2030.

South Korea is the third-largest source for imports to Uzbekistan (after Russian and China), accounting for 12 percent of overall imports and consisting mostly of automobiles and auto parts.

With Uzbek workers hit hard by a financial crisis in Russia -- a prime destination for labor migrants -- authorities are looking to diversify destination options. State media have reported that Uzbekistan is holding "negotiations on labor migration issues" with Turkey, the Czech Republic, and Oman, among other countries.

Written by Farangis Najibullah with contributions from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service.
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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.