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

Twilight World of Central Asian Migrants

Millions of Central Asian men desperate for work find illegal jobs in Kazakstan and Russia where they have few rights and are vulnerable to exploitation.
By IWPR staff
  • With the male population of working age abroad, women have replaced men in places like this brick-making factory in southern Tajikistan. (Photo: David Trilling)
    With the male population of working age abroad, women have replaced men in places like this brick-making factory in southern Tajikistan. (Photo: David Trilling)
  • Women left behind by the main breadwinners take on the burden of looking after the family. (Photo: David Trilling)
    Women left behind by the main breadwinners take on the burden of looking after the family. (Photo: David Trilling)
  • For migrants, breakfast and lunch is usually tea and bread, which they bake themselves. (Photo:  Valery Kaliev)
    For migrants, breakfast and lunch is usually tea and bread, which they bake themselves. (Photo: Valery Kaliev)
  • Having spent the whole day out in the cotton field, migrants eat their only cooked meal of the day. (Photo: Valery Kaliev)
    Having spent the whole day out in the cotton field, migrants eat their only cooked meal of the day. (Photo: Valery Kaliev)
  • Uzbek seasonal workers picking cotton in southern Kazakstan. (Photo: Valery Kaliev)
    Uzbek seasonal workers picking cotton in southern Kazakstan. (Photo: Valery Kaliev)
  • Cotton growers in Kazakstan pay a migrant worker around seven US cents per a kilogramme of picked cotton but sell it for ten times more. (Photo: Valery Kaliev)
    Cotton growers in Kazakstan pay a migrant worker around seven US cents per a kilogramme of picked cotton but sell it for ten times more. (Photo: Valery Kaliev)
  • Some migrants come with families, and older children work alongside their parents. (Photo: Valery Kaliev)
    Some migrants come with families, and older children work alongside their parents. (Photo: Valery Kaliev)
  • Migrants live in temporary accommodation that they make their home for the period of cotton-picking season. (Photo: Valery Kaliev)
    Migrants live in temporary accommodation that they make their home for the period of cotton-picking season. (Photo: Valery Kaliev)
  • A group of construction workers who came from Kokand in Uzbekistan, led by a 53-year-old team leader who gave his name as Abdulgapar. They were hired to build a house for a businessman in the town of Jetysai, southern Kazakstan. (Photo: Valery Kaliev - Taken as part of the project on documentary photography funded by Open Society-New York)
    A group of construction workers who came from Kokand in Uzbekistan, led by a 53-year-old team leader who gave his name as Abdulgapar. They were hired to build a house for a businessman in the town of Jetysai, southern Kazakstan. (Photo: Valery Kaliev - Taken as part of the project on documentary photography funded by Open Society-New York)
  • Construction workers who came from Kokand in Uzbekistan. (Photo: Valery Kaliev - Taken as part of the project on documentary photography funded by Open Society-New York)
    Construction workers who came from Kokand in Uzbekistan. (Photo: Valery Kaliev - Taken as part of the project on documentary photography funded by Open Society-New York)
  • Construction workers who came from Kokand in Uzbekistan. (Photo: Valery Kaliev - Taken as part of the project on documentary photography funded by Open Society-New York)
    Construction workers who came from Kokand in Uzbekistan. (Photo: Valery Kaliev - Taken as part of the project on documentary photography funded by Open Society-New York)
  • Construction workers who came from Kokand in Uzbekistan. (Photo: Valery Kaliev - Taken as part of the project on documentary photography funded by Open Society-New York)
    Construction workers who came from Kokand in Uzbekistan. (Photo: Valery Kaliev - Taken as part of the project on documentary photography funded by Open Society-New York)

Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan travel to their wealthier neighbours Russia and Kazakstan every year in the hope of escaping poverty.

According to unofficial estimates, the number of Central Asian guest workers in Russia and Kazakstan is between three and four million – many of whom are classed illegal immigrants with no residence or employment rights.

Unprotected by the laws of their host countries, they are left at the mercy of their employers. They cannot claim compensation for unfair treatment or accidents at work, or demand minimum pay. They are also vulnerable to abuse and extortion by police, who use the threat of deportation.

Central Asian migrants in Kazakstan and Russia typically fill low-paid manual jobs on building sites, cotton farms, the logging industry, catering and cleaning.

It is not unusual for them to work up to 15 hours a day, six days a week. They live in cramped conditions with several people sharing a room and are usually housed in basements, tents and other places unfit for human habitation.

Always at the bottom of the heap, migrant workers are the first to be made redundant when, as in recent years, the Russian labour market contracts. The authorities in Russia are also reducing the quota for imported labour.

As for Kazakstan, last year the government made changes to legislation that made it difficult for migrant workers to obtain work permits.

Migrant-sending countries have benefited from mass labour transfers. The money sent by seasonal workers back home accounts for the bulk of their gross domestic product. These remittances have provided a life-support system for many families.

But life for those left behind is not easy either. Women who stay home take on the burden of looking after children and the elderly.

The social implications of labour migration include the “abandoned wives” phenomenon - women whose migrant husbands stop sending money and do not return home - as well as a shortage of men of marriageable age.

A 2009 report by the International Organisation for Migration, IOM, looking into the plight of abandoned wives in Tajikistan estimated that about one third of migrant men would settle down in their host countries. Various estimates put the number of Tajik migrant workers at between 800,000 and one million and the majority of them were married men.

Central Asia’s labour exporting countries have been either slow or reluctant to adopt effective government policies aimed at protecting the rights of their migrant workers.

The Kyrgyz government is expecting to sign a bilateral agreement with Kazakstan over migrants’ rights in July this year. Last month, Kyrgyz officials held talks with their Russian counterparts on the legalisation of migrants labour activity in Russia.

At the beginning of this year, the government of Tajikistan set up a migration service which will seek to agreements with Russian agencies on migrant rights and status.

But in Uzbekistan - which is the biggest supplier of labour migrants in Central Asia – the authorities deny there’s a problem associated with migrants. The country has not signed international accords on labour migration and has yet to sign bilateral agreements with neighbouring Kazakstan on the treatment of migrant workers. 

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