Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azerbaijan: Crackdown on Foreign Workers

Proposed legislative amendments impose large penalties on companies that lie about the number of foreigners they employ.
By Rashad Suleimanov
Aziz Fazel and his wife have lived and worked in Azerbaijan since 2005, but have never got round to registering their presence with the government.

The Pakistani couple are part of a swelling and unregulated foreign workforce, mainly concentrated in the oil industry, which has been attracted by the booming Azeri economy.

But their carefree times may soon be over. The government intends to cut back on the number of foreigners doing jobs Azeri citizens could be doing. This spells disaster for Fazel.

“I have a salary of 700 US dollars,” he said. “Once officially registered, I will have to pay taxes and other dues. Considering the rent I pay for our apartment and other expenses, my salary will not suffice even to meet the needs of one person.”

Under current laws, companies have to pay the government for every foreigner they employ - an understandable incentive for them not to inform the labour ministry about the extent of their foreign workforce.

Rauf Tagiev, head of the ministry’s migration department, said proposed new amendments to the law would impose large penalties on companies that lied about the number of foreigners they employ.

Azeri workers would applaud such new restrictions.

“Some foreign companies treat us as if we were cavemen,” local engineer Samir Hasanov told IWPR.

“They bring in experts from their own countries to work in what projects they have going on in Azerbaijan, and the local workforce finds itself discriminated against.”

Azerbaijan hosts operations of some of the world’s largest companies, including BP, ExxonMobil, Lukoil and Statoil. The oil they extract has kept the economy buoyant. GDP was estimated to be expanding by an incredible 34 per cent in 2006 thanks to a new oil pipeline linking the Caspian Sea to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.

But the prosperity has hardly affected the average citizen’s life. Mass protests that accompanied elections in 2005 were largely driven by poverty and anger that the oil wealth has not trickled down to the people.

Hasanov refused to give the name of the foreign oil company he works for, but said it had replaced 30 local employees with foreigners over the 18 months. He said a foreign engineer was paid far more than he for less work.

With salaries that low, Azeri employees are forced to avoid taxes as well.

According to the labour ministry, there are more than 40,000 economic migrants in the country, hailing from all over the world but mainly, like Fazel, from Asia. Only 2,000 of them are registered, despite a law saying that unregistered foreign workers will be deported.

President Ilham Aliev lost patience with the situation in January, and told his government to bring the labour market under control.

Vahab Mamedov, head of the ministry’s demography and employment policy department, told IWPR that employment quotas for foreigners would be introduced in 2008. The authorities are now busy studying the impact of migrant labour on the local market.

“Several years ago, Azerbaijan was an exporter of workers, now it imports them,” said Mamedov. “We have already sent an inquiry to the interior ministry to find out the real number of migrants working in the country.”

The new laws should have been implemented a decade ago, according to trade unions. But, they say, at least the government is beginning to protect its citizens.

“There are thousands of labour migrants in Azerbaijan,” Mirvari Gahramanli, chairwoman of the committee for the protection of the rights of oil workers, told IWPR.

“Foreigners are mainly engaged in the oil business, or on road and infrastructure projects. Arriving in Azerbaijan, most of them do not get themselves registered. Although the move is a little late, it will boost the efforts to regulate the labour market in Azerbaijan,” she said.

A profit-sharing agreement between the Azerbaijani authorities and foreign oil companies allows for foreign specialists to be brought to work in Azerbaijan on condition the companies coordinate with the State Oil Company.

But Gahramanli said the last few years have seen a growing influx of workers like Fazel who are not employed in the oil sector. Fazel works for a metals factory; his wife for a Pakistani pharmaceutical firm.

“There is an increasing influx of workforce from China. Chinese companies operating in Azerbaijan have been engaging them,” she said.

According to the labour ministry, around seven thousand Chinese work in Baku and elsewhere in Azerbaijan. Some travel around the country as salesmen, hawking Chinese-made goods.

Mamedov said by introducing quotas the authorities wanted not only to restrict the number of migrants, but also to protect the domestic labour market, reduce unemployment and prevent illegal migration.

“Today, the US, Ireland and many European countries engage foreign specialists, and really value them,” he said. “But most of the people coming here are not specialists. Of course, the quotas will hit the number of non-specialists coming to Azerbaijan.”

Rashad Suleimanov is an IWPR contributor in Azerbaijan.

More IWPR's Global Voices