Kyrgyzstan Schools Young People for Export

Training people up to get jobs in Russia and beyond may ease unemployment at home, but some fear for the long-term consequences.

Kyrgyzstan Schools Young People for Export

Training people up to get jobs in Russia and beyond may ease unemployment at home, but some fear for the long-term consequences.

Labour officials in Kyrgyzstan are actively encouraging vocational colleges to train young people to work abroad.

The idea is that more young people should become proficient in the blue-collar trades that are in demand in Russia and other labour-hungry countries. Some analysts are warning, though, that the policy could come at a high demographic cost to Kyrgyzstan in the long term.

Early this year, Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for Migration signed an agreement with a local vocational school to train young people for a month to equip them for working in South Korea.

Igor Gromov, a senior official from the committee, told IWPR the impoverished country could no longer cope with providing assistance to its growing number of unemployed. It had to get used to the idea of exporting substantial numbers of its workers to relieve the social and economic burden at home, he said.

More than 100,000 young people reach working age every year, but relatively few find a decent job in the small, sluggish Kyrgyz economy and many go abroad to work as seasonal migrants, mainly in Russia, but also in Kazakstan and countries further afield.

“The current situation in Kyrgyzstan is characterised by a surplus labour force,” explained Gromov. “In this situation, temporary labour migration is the best alternative, so as to relieve tension in the domestic labour market and give migrants an opportunity to provide for themselves and for their relatives back home.”

Gromov believes accepting the fact that exportable labour is a resource could help Kyrgyzstan draw up more pragmatic development strategies to benefit itself as well as the countries where its workers go.

According to official statistcs, there are about 350,000 Kyrgyzstan nationals working in Russia and Kazakstan, while unofficial estimates put the number closer to two million. Turkey, China, the United Arab Emirates and South Korea are other popular destinations.

“We need to train potential migrants so that they can be competitive and more sought-after in the Russian labour market”, said Gromov.

For a start, he said, they needed to have a basic knowledge of Russia’s language and laws.

Though most Kyrgyz in the capital, Bishkek, speak Russian well, this is not always the case in the countryside, and especially in the south. Moreover, many emigrants from rural areas know little about Russia’s laws and customs or about what rights they have there. Ignorant of the law and possessing few marketable skills, all too many end up in dead-end jobs, earning extremely low salaries and working in dismal conditions.

Vocational colleges in Kyrgyzstan accept that many of their students plan to take their newly-acquired skills abroad.

“Our students want to acquire not only diplomas but also the skills needed for work in Russia or Kazakstan,” said Bolotbek Shatmanaliev, director of a college in Bishkek.

“If our businesses paid their workers decent wages, we would not have such an outflow,” said Tilek, a student on a vocational course who intends to look for work in Russia once he completes his course. “I want to find a well-paid job there as an electrician.”

The remittances migrants send home have become one of the biggest contributors to the Kyrgyz economy. During the first nine months of 2007, migrants from Russia alone are believed to have sent back more 700 million dollars.

The State Migration Committee is now looking at job markets in other countries to soak up more of the surplus labour.

Following negotiations last year, South Korea granted Kyrgyzstan a quota of 2,000 places for workers.

The committee has also held talks with Poland and Italy with a view to persuading these countries to admit students from Kyrgyzstan to do seasonal jobs. However, as Gromov admits, this idea did not win much support from the rectors of Kyrgyz universities, who feared losing their students for good.

Nurbek Omurov, of the International Organisation for Migration in Kyrygyzstan, praises the new emphasis on training personnel so that their skills match the needs of labour-importing countries.

“External migration relieves the domestic labour market, the economy improves thanks to migrant remittances, and the migrants themselves gain new skills that they can apply later back in Kyrgyzstan,” he said.

Omurov said Kyrgyz officials would soon be visiting Manila in order to learn from the experience of this long-term major exporter of labour. “The Philippines is the biggest exporter of labour migrants [in the world],” he said. “The country has almost half a century’s worth of experience in concluding deals with countries to receive migrants, and this will be useful for us.”

At the same time, Omurov admitted that giving migrants better skills to work abroad did not resolve the dilemma of how to retain enough qualified people to keep the economy going.

Cholpon Jakupova, a lawyer and former head of the State Labour Committee, complained that people forget about the downside of so many able-bodied youngsters leaving the country.

“The Kyrgyz nation, which is few in number, may simply lose its ability to reproduce itself if so many people of childbearing age, and who are active, energetic and ready to deal with challenges leave the country,” she warned.

Apart from the demographic consequences of sustained emigration, the export of skilled labour was paving the way for a prolonged economic crisis, said Jakupova.

“It’s already impossible to launch many industrial projects simply because of the shortage of people,” she said.

Jakupova argues that deliberately training young people so that they can go abroad is not the right policy.

“Young people are not linking their future with that of their country,” she asserted. “The fact that so many young people say there is nothing worth staying in Kyrgyzstan for is… really worrying.”

Asyl Osmonalieva is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek.

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