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Tajikistan: Treaty Boosts Migrant Workers

Officials hope bilateral agreement with Moscow will put an end to the intimidation and deaths of Tajiks working in Russia.
By Nargis Zokirova

Tajikistan is preparing to sign a new bilateral agreement which should put an end to some of the more extreme abuses suffered by its migrant workers within Russia.


Tajik labour and social affairs ministry adviser Jahongir Lokhutsho told IWPR that the agreement, which is expected to be signed into law on August 20, should provide solutions to the many social and legal problems facing migrant workers in Russia.


And Vladimir Burkun, of the Russian interior ministry migration department’s office in Tajikistan, said, “These measures will force employers to pay insurance policies, and provide normal sanitary and hygienic conditions for hired workers’ accommodation. These measures will also ensure that labour migrants are paid a decent wage.”


The process of drawing up the intergovernmental agreement between Dushanbe and Moscow has been dragging on for three years – during which time thousands of migrant Tajik workers are believed to have been killed in accidents or denied the most basic employment rights.


More than 200 Tajiks have died in Russia in the first six months of this year alone, according to officials in Dushanbe. But unofficial figures suggest that a record number of migrant workers – around 800 – died while working in Russia last year.


The exact numbers are unclear, as most sources only count the coffins which are returned to Tajikistan by rail or by air – which can cost as much as 1,000 US dollars - while many bodies are transported by road to save money, or simply buried in Russia.


It’s estimated that more than a million people – 40 per cent of Tajikistan’s working population – are currently in Russia, in an attempt to escape the crushing poverty and lingering effects of a five-year civil war in their homeland.


Far from damaging the Tajik economy, these workers provide the backbone of political and economic stability as they send more than 800 million dollars back to the former Soviet republic every year.


However, many do so while working illegally, and are treated as little more than slaves.


Economics professor Khojimuhammad Umarov, who has researched the problems facing Tajik workers abroad, told IWPR, “Most labour migrants in Russia have no rights at all, as their employers do not sign any contracts or agreements with them.


“They can go for months without being paid their wages and are routinely insulted and beaten. Furthermore, they can lose their jobs at any time, with no consultation or compensation.”


Many are killed on building sites which do not follow proper health and safety practises, Umarov said. But he hinted darkly that many of these deaths could be deliberate. “Russian employers who do not wish to pay migrants for their work at the end of the season could simply arrange for ‘accidents’ to happen,” he alleged.


However, Russian official Burkun told IWPR that in many cases, it was not possible to do more to help such workers.


“Tajik migrants’ rights are violated to a large degree because the vast majority are in Russia illegally. In 2002, only 6,380 were legally registered. If a person works outside the law, then it is to be expected that he may be abused,” he said.


When looking for seasonal work, workers from Tajikistan are prepared to do the heaviest work, and agree to virtually any conditions – however unpleasant – in order to secure a job.


Ibodullo Nazarov, who worked as a manual labourer in the Sverdlovsk region for a year, told IWPR, “We Tajik migrants live in places not meant for human habitation – in attics, rubbish containers, garages, cellars, basement and drain shafts. And any one of these ‘dormitories’ may have up to a thousand people living there at any one time.”


And working conditions can be equally unpleasant. Bahrom Rahimov has been employed in Russia for five years, including a spell as a loader in Moscow’s Cherkizovsky market, where are many as 5,000 of his migrant countrymen live and work.


“I didn’t see any of Moscow during this time as the bosses don’t let [unregistered] Tajiks leave the market in case they are caught and questioned by the police,” he explained.


“I was paid 80 rubles [around 2.7 dollars] for working all day long. We not only had no contracts, we weren’t given anywhere to bathe, so we went for months unwashed and unshaven. But at least we were safe, and the police didn’t bother us.”


Unregistered Tajiks are vulnerable to abuse at the hands of corrupt elements within the law enforcement bodies at the best of times, and this situation worsens after every bombing or death caused by the long-running conflict between Russia and Chechnya.


After such events, control over migrants is increased, and thorough document checks are carried out on all “blacks” – as people from Central Asia and the Caucasus are often called in Russia. Passports and other documents are routinely confiscated, and workers can face jail if they cannot afford to pay a bribe to get their papers back.


Nargis Zokirova is a correspondent for the Vecherny Dushanbe newspaper.


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