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

Kyrgyz "Slaves" on Kazak Plantations

Migrants from Kyrgyzstan who take jobs on Kazak farms find they are trapped into cheap labour with no rights.
By Asel Sagynbaeva

Thousands of seasonal workers travel from Kyrgyzstan every year to take manual jobs on tobacco plantations in Kazakstan. They come in the hope of earning more than they could ever make at home, but an IWPR investigation has shown that many end up as virtual slaves, with little to show for their labour.

 

The plantation workers work from morning till night, lead a half-starved, impoverished existence and are wholly dependent on their employers. They are hired by middlemen who "sell" them on to the farmers. Working conditions are harsh and accommodation poor, and labourers have no means of redress. Their only hope is that at the end of their stint, they receive at least some of the pay they are due so that they can go home. Even then, they can expect to be relieved of money by police who stop them along the way.

 

Seasonal work migration to Kazakstan began only recently, in 1998, when rich tobacco farmers began taking on temporary labourers. It is estimated that more than 10,000 people - sometimes entire families - make the trip.

 

Kazakstan sounds an attractive option because the average monthly wage of 130 US dollars is five times what it is in Kyrgyzstan, where official statistics suggest 45 per cent of the population lives in poverty - and independent experts believe the real figure is even higher.

 

In the seasonal labour market, workers have no legal status and no practical rights - and they are too poor to do anything about it. It is a murky and little-publicised area, and when IWPR embarked on this investigation we began to realise that the only way to see this world was to get inside it. So that is exactly we did - an IWPR contributor posed as a man desperate for work, travelled to Kazakstan and got himself taken on by a tobacco farmer.

 

RECRUITMENT

 

 

 

 

The Kyrgyz nationals who go to Kazakstan are not just unskilled labourers. Many have previous experience of working on tobacco plantations, coming from parts of Kyrgyzstan which have similar farms - but are still undeveloped and do not need their labour.

 

Most people find work through middlemen, who hire them with grand promises of high wages and then "sell" them, turning them over to prospective employers for a fee. This money is generally recouped by the farmer by taking it out of his new employee's wages. The practice -known as indentured labour - is one which ties employee to master for no reward until the debt is paid off.

 

Erik Dushematov's case is typical of the way this happens. He was in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek in March this year, looking for work, when he met a man who offered to get him a well-paid job in Kazakstan and even pay his travel expenses. With 16 others, Dushematov found himself in the Almaty region, where local employers were waiting to take on staff. One of them paid the middleman 6,000 tenge, about 40 dollars, to hire Dushematov, who then had to work off this amount before receiving any pay.

 

Another seasonal worker, Salakhidin Chomoev, told a similar story. Two women promised to find him work on a Kazak building site. " They told me I would have a decent bed and food," he said. Just like Dushematov, Chomoev and 14 other men were taken across the border by a Kyrgyz smuggler, and their services offered to a Kazak businessman.

 

"The owner promised to pay us well," Chomoev recalled. But first he had to repay the hiring fee. "Now we have to pay him back," he lamented.

 

Bazarbai Ergeshov works alongside Chomoev. He came to Kazakstan in May with a group of Kyrgyz men. He too was lured by the promise of a good job and decent conditions. "She [the recruiting agent] promised to ensure that the employer signed a contract and paid us on time. But I've been here three months and I haven't heard a thing from her," he said.

 

THE HIRING FAIR

 

Most of the illegal migrants make the trip to Kazakstan by road, as there are fewer checks than on the train. Those who do not have proper documents get round border checks by paying bribes. On the way into Kazakstan they pay the equivalent of two to four dollars - a moderate fee since they have not started earning yet. On the journey back they will pay a lot more.

 

IWPR's reporter travelled by train to the Kazak city of Taraz, 300 km from Bishkek. The train conductor seemed surprised he had a train ticket, since it cost 11 dollars. "Labourers can't afford the luxury of buying a ticket," he said. "They usually haggle with us to pay half price."

 

The reporter went on to Almaty region where, in the Enbekshikazak district, tobacco fields stretch across the horizon.

 

Demand for illegal labour is high, and the village of Chilik has become the main hiring centre. Business is brisk between the middlemen and the local planters, and is conducted in the style of a livestock market.

 

One recruiter had his workers in the back of a truck. "Who wants Kyrgyz?" he called to the plantation managers. "I'm selling them cheaply." The labourers were sold quickly, and farmers asked the agents to bring more.

 

"It is a disgrace for your nation," one elderly Kazak farmer told me. But within minutes, he had bought two labourers and admitted he couldn't wait "for another batch of young Kyrgyz".

 

IWPR's contributor tried putting himself forward as a potential labourer. However, when he asked for 50 dollars a month the Kazak farmers just laughed. "Are you mad?" asked one. "If you can make 50 dollars in a whole season you should be happy."

 

When the reporter claimed he was wanted by the Kyrgyz police, farmers became more eager to take him on. Many prefer to hire criminals on the run, as they are prepared to work just for food, with no wages, and are less likely to leave the plantation.

 

In the end, the reporter found a job with a Chilik farmer, Nurakhmet Tokhtakhunov, who had a two-hectare tobacco field. He advised his new employee not to tell anyone his name and not to leave the farm.

 

ON THE PLANTATIONS

 

 

 

 

Migrant workers generally spend the summer months in Kazakstan, when the tobacco is grown and harvested, and return home in the autumn when the work season ends.

 

Initially, they may be well treated and fed them three times a day. Later on, as the hired hands realise how bad conditions are and suspect they may be cheated out of their wages, the farm owners get tougher.

 

The working day is from dawn to dusk, in the heat of the Kazak summer which approaches 40 degrees. Typically, work on the plantations involves picking the tobacco leaves by hand, sorting and packing them - backbreaking work. When whole families come for the season, adolescent children work alongside their parents.

 

"We only have one half-hour break, for lunch," said migrant worker Chomoev. "There are no days off. We only get a break when it rains hard, so we pray for a downpour."

 

Most employers make only verbal contracts with workers. They set a monthly wage, or promise them a share in the profits from the harvest. Farmer Tokhtakhunov promised IWPR's reporter 3,000 tenge or some 20 dollars a month. But from this paltry sum, 1,000 tenge was to be deducted monthly for food, cigarettes and other expenses.

 

Many labourers find they do not get even the modest wages they are due. Chomoev complained that three months after starting work, he had no contract and no money. "When I ask my employer for money, he just says he will pay me if I work better," he said.

 

"The Kyrgyz are slaves to the tobacco growers," said another migrant, Karabek Shabdaliev. "The word Kyrgyz has become a synonym for humiliation. If a farmer asks his son to do something, the lad will reply, 'Why should I? Am I a Kyrgyz?'"

 

Shabdaliev and his family spent a year working on a Kazak tobacco plantation but returned home with nothing. When the time came to settle accounts, he says the farmer reneged on a deal to share the profits with him. "In gratitude for my months of work I received a sum which barely covered the journey back to Bishkek," he said.

 

Farm owner Serik Estemesov, however, blamed the Shabdaliev family. "I was ruined because of them," he said. "All they did was eat up my money. I didn't get the harvest I expected because these people worked badly."

 

ALLEGATIONS OF ABUSES

 

Apart from the poor pay and working conditions, there are complaints that plantation owners mistreat the illegals. In some of the cases told to IWPR, they withheld payment, alleging poor work, or "sold" people on to another farmer.

 

Erik Dushematov worked for one farmer for two months. "He fed us badly, so I refused to work," he said. The farmer then demanded he pay back the 6,000 tenge he had cost in hiring fees, plus 4,000 tenge for food. When he could not do so, the owners sold Dushematov to another grower for his total "value" of 10,000 tenge, about 66 dollars.

 

The new boss was Tokhtakhunov, the IWPR contributor's employer. He promised him the same wages - 20 dollars minus expenses. "I hope that in four or five months I can pay back my new owner, and work for myself," said Dushematov hopefully.

 

Salima has a similar story of being resold to pay off a "debt". In March 2003 she came to Kazakstan with her two young children, looking for work. She worked growing tobacco seedlings for four months, but the farmer claimed she had done a bad job and had cost him 20,000 tenge. So he passed her on to another farmer so she could earn enough to repay him - and, she told IWPR, he took her children as security.

 

Anyone who does try to run away from a plantation risks being hunted down and beaten. IWPR's reporter was offered work catching runaways. A farmer offered him a 200 dollar bounty for catching two workers. "Find them, and I'll pay you the money," he said. "I'll send them out to the steppe to tend cattle. They won't be able to run away from there."

 

Other cases of assault were also reported to IWPR - Arap Saipov, from southern Kyrgyzstan said a farmer beat him for arguing with an overseer.

 

POOR ACCOMMODATION

 

 

 

 

The housing provided for labourers is poor. One farmer has a barn where some 20 labourers from Kyrgyzstan live. The barn is divided into sections - families get a compartment while single men share a room with several others. The bedding is no more than a thin, dirty mattress laid on the floor and a small blanket. Even so the farmer deducted money from his workers' pay for "wear and tear". The barn was swarming with bedbugs. IWPR's correspondent spent a night in the barn, and in the space of an hour killed 15 of them.

 

Yet this was one of the better residences seen by IWPR. Most labourers lived in makeshift huts made of branches and sticks. Tokhtakhunov provided his IWPR labourer with a small open trailer to live in, with two dirty mattresses as bedding. He housed three other Kyrgyz in a small garage. Dushembatov had to share with Mairam - a woman he did not know - and her son Imar. "When I get changed, I don't even notice that there's a man next to me," said Mairam. "I've got used to Erik."

 

Nuridin Mataev's family is unusually well established, since he has worked in Kazakstan for four years with his six children and grandchildren. They all live in a wagon, and they even have electricity. This crude accommodation was seen as a luxury, and as the exception. "Employers who want their workers to live decently are very rare," said Mataev.

 

Since employers deduct a proportion of wages for food, labourers try to economise on eating to save money. Tokhtakunov bought his team several kilograms of macaroni and a bag of flour - at their expense. Mairam cooked for everyone. It was a monotonous diet - boiled macaroni with unripe potato and mint for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

 

GOING HOME

 

The return trip presents its own hazards for the migrants. To make the journey, IWPR's contributor teamed up with two Kyrgyz men - one a "trader" who had delivered some fresh labourers, the other, one of his clients who had decided to return after seeing the conditions that faced him in Kazakstan.

 

The returning group passed through numerous Kazak police, customs and border posts. When Kazak police saw they had Kyrgyz passports, they demanded their immigration cards. Since no one had one, police forced them to empty their bags and then "fined" each person 10 or 15 dollars. The same thing happened at each of six checkpoints.

 

When police and border guards saw IWPR documents, they backed off and returned the money to the contributor.

 

LEGAL VACUUM

 

Kyrgyz who go to work illegally in Kazakstan are not covered by any legislation that protects their rights, since laws in the two states tend to be designed to cover citizens living in their own country. Laws are prescriptive, and it is hard to adapt them to situations - such as cross-border migration - which they did not envisage.

 

Akmat Alagushev, a lawyer for Internews in Bishkek, says Kyrgyzstan's criminal code does penalise the "recruitment of people for the purpose of sexual or other exploitation committed by deceitful means".

 

But such deceit is hard to prove. "Workers do not sign any written contract with the recruiters, so it is impossible to prove deceit," said Alagushev.

 

"There need to be serious grounds to open a criminal case. This could include a statement from an injured person, but people do not make such statements."

 

Police say migrants who are cheated of their pay rarely make an official complaint. They fear ridicule - or retribution - or else they plan to go back and try their luck on a different farm.

 

The Kyrgyz parliament has now acted to stamp out the one aspect of the business that takes place within its remit: smuggling people across the border. On June 27 it passed a law outlawing trafficking in people. The legislation will take effect once signed by the president.

 

Toktokan Borombaeva, a parliamentary deputy who took part in the drafting process, told IWPR that the bill had taken a year to complete. "Many people had doubts, because passing the law meant admitting the existence of slavery. But the realities show that this terrible phenomenon does exist, so there need to be instruments to fight it."

 

Parliamentarians now want the criminal code to be amended to make organising illegal migration punishable by up to five years in jail. "If this law had existed in Kyrgyzstan before, many problems could have been avoided," said Borombaeva.

 

Some human rights activists want legislators to go further, to extend protection to Kyrgyz citizens outside the country. According to Maria Lisitsyna, head of the Youth Human Rights Group, the constitution already guarantees such protection, and the state should now act to make this provision a reality, even for illegal migrants. "We demand that the state protect all its citizens," she said. "In principle, it should even protect those who commit violations of the law."

 

Lisitsyna wants to see the Kazak authorities do their bit to protect the migrant workers, too. The Kazak labour code already lays down minimum health and safety standards. "These regulations should be applied to all migrants, whether they are citizens of Kazakstan or not," she said.

 

So far Kazakstan has focused on imposing tougher restrictions on foreign workers. From July 1, 2003, every foreign citizen aged 16 and above must obtain an immigration card at the border. This gives them the right to stay in the country for one month, after which they must seek an extension. The rules date fron a January 2000 decree designed to regulate the residence rights of people from abroad.

 

However, Kazak parliamentary deputy Serik Abdrakhmanov does not believe that legislation alone will solve the problem. "We have excellent laws," he said, "But they are not implemented. There is a cover-up on the border, everything is bought and sold. Everyone takes bribes - border guards and police."

 

Abdrakhmanov says he is well aware that many labour migrants in Kazakstan are bought and sold like slaves. They need greater access to information, since many are illiterate and unaware of what rights they do have.

 

Ekaterina Badikova, local co-ordinator for the International Organisation for Migration, told IWPR that if there are cases which would constitute slavery, they should be dealt with under the United Nations convention on trans-national organised crime, which prohibits the sale of human beings. But this may not always be applicable. "A lot of the time what we are dealing with is simply a breach of a labour contract, even if it's a verbal contract," she said.

 

CONCLUSIONS

 

A consensus of opinion among the Kyrgyz experts interviewed by IWPR suggests that in addition to the laws already enacted, a twofold approach is needed.

 

Bulat Sarygulov, deputy head of the migration department in the Kyrgyz foreign ministry says economic and social problems are the root of the problem. "We need to give people work and the chance to improve their living conditions in their own villages," he said. Bubusara Ryskulova, head of the non-government women's crisis centre Sezim, agreed with this view, and urged the Kyrgyz government to work on job-creation schemes which would reduce the desperate need of many to seek work abroad.

 

Cholpon Jakupova, who heads Adilet, a legal advice service funded by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, says it would help if Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan signed inter-government agreements regulating labour migration. "The rights of people who leave their own country to work are often violated," she said. "But we are rarely able to complain to the Kazak authorities and demand that they press charges against unscrupulous employers."

 

The illegal labour problem has been discussed by Kazak and Kyrgyz government officials in recent years, but not at ministerial level. So far no agreement has materialised.

 

Human rights activist Abdunazar Mamatislamov, who works with illegal labour migrants, agrees that without a formal agreement, filing complaints to the Kazak authorities yields little benefit. In any case few migrants are willing to come forward to testify about their bad working conditions. "It is never clear what will happen to them in Kazakstan if they make such statements," he said.

 

"Instead of closing its eyes, our government should reach an agreement with Kazakstan on the conditions under which Kyrgyz citizens work there," he added.

 

"Slavery cannot be justified. When Kyrgyz citizens go to work in Kazakstan, they do so at their own risk, as the state is not hiring them. But by doing nothing, the governments of both Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan have created all the prerequisites for people to end up in a position of servility."

 

Ulugbek Babakulov is a human rights activist, Natalya Domagalskaya is a student at Bishkek University, Asel Sagynbaeva is IWPR project coordinator in Bishkek, Aitken Kadirbekov is a journalist with Nachnyom s Ponedelnika in Almaty