OSH, Kyrgyzstan -- Hundreds of Uzbek migrant workers, including many women from the country’s densely populated Ferghana Valley, cross into neighboring Kyrgyzstan every day looking for jobs.
Large crowds of Uzbek migrants gather near the Dostuk border crossing in the southern Kara-Suu district of the Osh region early every morning.
It’s where many of the migrants get hired for short-term, informal jobs. Others travel deeper into the country in search of employment.
Those who arrive early usually find work by midday, says Oibek, a laborer from the eastern Uzbek province of Andijon.
“On average we make about $10 to $20 a day in Kyrgyzstan. It’s quite good,” Oibek says. In Uzbekistan the median salary is about $130 per month.
“Of course, there are some days that we can’t find any work and go back home empty-handed,” he adds.
Oibek says most of the Uzbek migrants in Kyrgyzstan are those who were not able to go to Russia due to the pandemic-related travel restrictions and high ticket prices.
There is a reasonably good demand for Uzbek laborers in Kyrgyzstan, says one Kyrgyz employer. Sultan Aibashev, a Kara-Suu resident, was in Dostuk to hire a carpenter.
“Migrants from Uzbekistan agree to do the work for much lower money than our local workers,” Aibashev said. “Besides, they do their work efficiently. There are many skilled workers among them.”
But not everybody is happy.
Some Kyrgyz officials say the cheaper Uzbek workforce is putting increasing pressure on the local job market, squeezing out Kyrgyz workers.
Kyrgyzstan itself faces an unemployment crisis that has worsened during the pandemic.
A recent survey by the U.S.-based International Republican Institute showed that nearly 60 percent of the respondents in Kyrgyzstan consider unemployment the most serious problem facing the country.
“We need to provide jobs for our own citizens first,” says Oroz Sheripbaeva, the head of the Osh regional Employment and Social Development Department.
“People from the most vulnerable segments of the population come to us saying they are unable for find work. Meanwhile, there are so many people from Uzbekistan who are working at our construction sites,” Sheripbaeva told RFE/RL.
According to government statistics, nearly 157,000 people in Kyrgyzstan were registered as unemployed in 2020. The real number, however, is estimated to be about 500,000 in a country of some 6.5 million people.
Let Them Pay Taxes
Officials at the Dostuk checkpoint say some 300 Uzbek nationals, mostly residents of Andijon, cross into Kara-Suu every day.
Only a handful of them are thought to be entering Kyrgyzstan for a family visit or to go sightseeing. The majority come for black market work.
It’s not known how many migrants from Uzbekistan currently work in Kyrgyzstan because most of them are hired informally by private employers to build or renovate houses, demolish old buildings, and do other manual jobs. Women are often hired for housework and both men and women work on farms.
The jobs are short-term, lasting from several hours, such as cutting down trees or spring cleaning, to a few weeks working in construction or agriculture.
The workers usually stay in accommodation provided by the employer. Those who come from the border villages return home in the evening.
The jobs are offered informally, with a verbal agreement between the worker and the employer. Salaries are only paid in cash.
It’s highly uncommon for either the worker or the employer to register with authorities and pay taxes.
There are calls among some Kyrgyz officials and others to regulate the illegal labor sector, introducing a mandatory work permit and income tax for migrant workers.
Migrants from Uzbekistan began coming to Kyrgyzstan -- on a smaller scale -- in September 2017, when the two countries reopened checkpoints and simplified border-crossing procedures.
Just a year later, Kyrgyz lawmaker Kenjebek Bokoev said Uzbek migrants working informally bring no benefit to Kyrgyzstan.
Bokoev said the migrants, who force “thousands of Kyrgyz out of jobs,” must work legally and pay Kyrgyz taxes.
Until Russia Reopens
The number of Uzbek workers in Kyrgyzstan is not expected to drop until Russia removes pandemic-related travel restrictions.
Russia -- the top destination for Central Asian migrant workers -- reopened its doors to Uzbek citizens on April 1. But they’re only allowed to enter Russia by flying.
With just two flights a week scheduled for migrant workers, all of the plane tickets for the summer were quickly sold out.
Central Asia’s most-populous country, with some 35 million inhabitants, Uzbekistan depends heavily on remittances from migrant workers.
The official unemployment rate in 2020 was 13 percent. But even top government officials acknowledge that the jobless rate is actually much higher.
An estimated 6 million Uzbeks traveled abroad -- mostly to Russia -- for seasonal jobs every year before the COVID-19 pandemic struck early last year.
According to the Transport Ministry, Uzbekistan Airways made 87 flights per week from Uzbekistan to Russia before the pandemic.
There were also 97 flights a week operated by various Russian airlines at the height of the migrant labor season.
The most popular and affordable option for migrant workers was to travel by land, with 12 buses and 13 trains a week connecting Tashkent and Andijon to various Russian cities.
Talks are reportedly under way to reopen the train service, which was suspended in March 2020. But no exact date for a resumption of service has been announced.