Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Kyrgyz Thirst for Better Life
"I've been sold like a slave," sobbed Ainara, a Kyrgyz woman desperate to escape her 'job' in New York. She arrived in the United States to work as a nanny. Four months on and she is also cook, laundry maid and cleaner to the family which hired her. She has yet to be paid and the company, which arranged her trip, is refusing to return her passport.
Working overseas seems to many Kyrgyz the only way left to provide for their families. With state employees earning only 1,500-2,000 som per month ($30-$40), doctors 800-1,200 som and teachers a mere 500-700 som, it's easy to see why. Especially as salaries often arrive two or three months late.
The United States embassy in Bishkek is now receiving an unprecedented number of requests for visas from Kyrgyz citizens desperate to escape deplorable economic conditions.
The demand for visas has spawned a number of 'companies' which offer to find would-be travellers jobs abroad and to arrange their documentation and flights.
Ainara arranged her trip to New York through such an intermediary, but soon found the reality of life in America very different from her expectations.
"[In Bishkek], they showed me a long list of specialities which employers are looking to hire. They gave me work to choose from and bought me a plane ticket for $540.
"According to the contract I was supposed to spend the first week earning to pay for the services of the company, the second two weeks paying for the plane ticket. But I've been working for four months and I still haven't been paid a cent for my work."
Ainara said when she arrived at the address given to her she was told, "Forget everything you've been promised and forget the names of the people who invited you out here."
Ainara's employer, interviewed in Bishkek, openly admitted hiring citizens from post-Soviet countries was a profitable business. The workforce is very cheap and well educated. Getting visas doesn't take much effort and isn't very expensive. Invitations for around $80-$100 are easily acquired from the large Russian émigré community in the New York suburbs of Brooklyn and Brighton Beach.
Ainara said the people who had "invited" her to the US had used false names. She left seven children behind in Kyrgyzstan, "They're waiting for help from me and I don't know if I'll finally get paid next month."
She said she had tried to run away two months before, but couldn't get her passport back. "I'm no better off than a slave," she said.
Finding the Bishkek office of Ainara's company is not easy. The firm never advertises. Contact with its representative is normally arranged through acquaintances.
Unsolicited enquiries are met with suspicious questions: "How did you get this number?" "Who told you about the firm?" "Where are you calling from?"
An official there refused to discuss Ainara's case, although she said holding onto clients' passports was an "insurance measure". "On occasion people have used our services and then run off," she explained.
The company has a license from the Employment and Social Protection Ministry allowing it to set people up with work in the USA. But no controls exist to regulate or monitor what happens to the company's clients.
Not all companies providing emigration related services are, however, as suspect as the one employing Ainara. A US-owned company, for example, found Azat a job on a construction site in New Jersey for eight months.
"I was doing roofing work. Over a month and a half I paid off my plane ticket. Then I was working for myself. I've got no complaints about the firm," Azat said.
His boss said almost 90 per cent of companies involved in the business are "rip-off merchants."
Sadly while the economic crisis persists in Kyrgyzstan, people will continue to use such intermediaries, good or bad. Any money, after all, is big money.
Cholpon Orozobekova is a regular IWPR contributor.
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