Kyrgyzstan: Foreign Labour Ban Sparks Controversy

Tough new restrictions on migrants in the retail sector criticised by rights activists and some in business community.

Kyrgyzstan: Foreign Labour Ban Sparks Controversy

Tough new restrictions on migrants in the retail sector criticised by rights activists and some in business community.

Traders from others countries will be out of work this spring when new legislation banning labour migrants from working in Kyrgyz markets comes into effect.

Starting April 1, only Kyrgyz nationals will be allowed to sell in the country’s markets, with a ten per cent quota imposed on labour migrants working in other retail sectors like supermarkets and shopping centres.

The decision to limit non-Kyrgyz workers comes after Russia’s January announcement banning market traders from other countries working there, a move that will have significant impact on the Kyrgyz economy and could leave up to 100,000 of its citizens unemployed.

President Kurmanbek Bakiev has appealed to the Russian president to allocate a quota of 500,000 Kyrgyz who would be allowed to work in the country’s markets. The Russian side has yet to respond.

Also key to the new legislation was lobbying on the part of local market traders who complain they can’t compete with the labour migrants. They say the number of Chinese, Uighurs, Turks, Koreans, Iranians and Uzbeks has increased dramatically in recent years, particularly at large markets in Bishkek and Osh. Some had even threatened to take to the streets and demonstrate if the government failed to crack down.

Aigul Ryskulova, the chairwoman of the state committee for immigration and employment, says the government imposed the restrictions in response to those complaints and to create more favourable conditions for Kyrgyz businessmen.

“The impetus came from appeals and complaints by our local street traders,” she said.

“They have appealed to us several times. It’s no secret that every year the number of foreign traders increases. And unemployment in the country is growing, so they should be replaced by local people. All the work which was previously done by foreigners will be done by Kyrgyzstan citizens.”

Even before Russia’s ban on labour migrants, unemployment was a serious problem in Kyrgyzstan with official statistics suggesting about 17 per cent of the population is out of work. However, the actual figure is much higher, meaning local traders welcomed the new rules, although there has been criticism from some human rights advocates and businessmen.

“Every month someone I know loses his job. And there’s nowhere else to go. There isn’t any other work. I have three children,” said Karim, a market trader in Bishkek who supports the new legislation.

Juman Mederaliev, who has been working at Osh’s Karasuu market for five years, said traders had planned a demonstration for February had the government failed to responds to their concerns.

“The people would have risen up,” he said. “We demand lawfulness and justice.”

Lyubov Ivanova, a businesswoman from Bishkek, says the labour migrants get tax breaks in their own countries and have close connections with the factories that produce the inexpensive goods they sell. She also questions the quality of some of the products they bring in.

“There is no benefit to the country. The money is taken out of the country,” said Ivanova.

Sharapat Majitova, the chair of the trade union at Karasuu, says the number of traders from other countries began to increase when Kazakstan and Uzbekistan toughened their own labour laws. “The Chinese and Uighurs who were deported from these countries came to us,” she said, adding she fears violence between the local and migrant workers. “We need to stop this expansion now, because local traders are angry and sometimes even threaten to use violence.”

Juman Mederaliev agrees that tensions are rising. “Many of them work illegally. We need to regulate the system and introduce some rules. No one can guarantee that local residents will not resort to methods of force. They may burn their goods and drive them out,” he said.

Some, however, oppose the government decision to ban non-Kyrgyz traders from the country’s markets and kiosks.

The chairman of the presidential human rights commission, Tursunbek Akun, sees the move as a violation of the migrant’s human rights, “[They] also have rights. I am against this decree.”

Some in the business community have also spoken out against the changes. Company president Emil Umetaliev believes the ban will hinder the development of the small businesses that have sprung up to service the migrant workers and suggests a system allocating a certain number of traders’ visas would be more appropriate than banning them altogether.

Businessman Omurbek Abdrakhmanov also proposes allowing a restricted number of migrants in. “I consider the invasion of citizens from [other] countries to be a dangerous signal. A quota for each country individually should have been introduced long ago,” he said.

There is concern in Kyrgyzstan that the recent debate will harm the country’s relations with its neighbours - a fear the government dismisses.

“At a diplomatic level, there should not be a negative reaction to the government decree,” said Aigul Ryskulova. “If the decision is passed, then this means it was required by the internal situation in the country.”

Ryskulova says any complaints will ultimately be resolved between governments.

Meanwhile, migrant workers like Yan from China are worried. She’s been working at Bishkek’s Dordoi market for two years and is concerned she’ll lose her job. “Yes, I earn good money here, but it is not easy work. I don’t want to leave. I want to stay,” she said.

Rozmukhamet, an Uighur from the Xinjiang-Uighur autonomous region who also trades at Dordoi, is more optimistic. He doubts the new law will be implemented. “Kyrgyzstan is a poor country. We help people by providing them with cheap goods. Who are we hindering? The police? We give them money everyday for lunch and dinner. I think that the legislation will provide another excuse to take money from us. But we will stay here and continue to work,” he said.

Cholpon Orozobekova is an IWPR reporter in Bishkek.

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