Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Uzbek migrant workers get little support from their government if they run into trouble abroad. (Photo: Andrey Kudryashov/IWPR archive)
Hundreds of thousands of Uzbeks working abroad enjoy few protections because their government is in denial about their existence, rights activists say.
As in neighbouring Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the labour force in Uzbekistan has gone abroad in large numbers in recent years in hope of escaping a dire economic situation at home and earning a decent wage in countries like Russia and Kazakstan.
Unlike the Tajik and Kyrgyz governments, however, the Uzbek authorities do not acknowledge the exodus – and the substantial sums the migrants send home – because the official line is that the domestic economy is booming. As a result, they make little effort to ensure migrant workers are covered by the right legislation, deny them pension and other benefits, and do nothing when their citizens suffer mistreatment or worse abroad.
The authorities’ position seems to be that since many of the migrants are illegal, they do not officially exist, so the Uzbek state need not step in if they are murdered or get into difficulties while abroad.
OFFICIALS DOWNPLAY SCALE OF EXODUS
The Agency for Labour Migration Abroad, which is part of Uzbekistan’s labour and welfare ministry, says the number of people working abroad only runs into thousands. But the non-government Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Defenders cites estimates suggesting that between two and five million of the country’s 28 million people are out of the country, mostly in Russia and Kazakstan, but also in the United Arab Emirates and South Korea.
Tashpulat Yoldashev, an Uzbek analyst now living in the United States, says the outflow of labour not only makes a substantial contribution to the national economy through the money remittances workers send home to their impoverished families; it also relieves social pressures created by high de facto unemployment.
“Every migrant sends home at least 1,500 US dollars a year, which provides a decent amount of support for family members left behind in Uzbekistan,” he explained. “As well as earning wages, the migrants are enriched with new ideas, they acquire business skills, and some come back home and set up their own businesses.”
However, this contribution goes unrecognised. The Uzbek government continues to insist the economy is going from strength to strength, a claim which would be undermined by a public admission that people are leaving in droves to perform manual tasks in Russia.
Addressing the nation on Uzbekistan’s independence day, September 1, President Islam Karimov said gross domestic product had shown a 250 per cent increase since 1990, a year before the republic split off from the Soviet Union. He announced that average monthly wages would reach 500 dollars by the end of 2010. While low by most standards, this figure looks unattainable since the government’s own figures show wages averaged 200 dollars in June, using the optimistic official exchange rate.
“For many years, Tashkent has been boasting of high economic growth, saying that up to a million new jobs are created every year, and not admitting to the high levels of unemployment in the country,” Yoldashev said. “At the same time, Uzbekistan is becoming the main supplier of unemployed labour to job markets in other [former Soviet] countries, particularly Russia.”
Abdurahman Tashanov of Ezgulik, a human rights group in Uzbekistan, added, “All this propagandistic glitz creates an impression of prosperity. The authorities’ obstinacy means labour migrants are deprived of even the minimum social guarantees.”
When IWPR contacted Uzbekistan’s labour migration agency about the figures, a representative who would not give his name denied there was a problem.
“There isn’t a flood. Everything is within normal bounds. Migration takes place within a legal framework,” he said by phone. “If there are illegals, that isn’t an issue for us to deal with.”
MIGRANTS EXIST OUTSIDE THE LAW
These comments by exemplify a key problem – the procedures for leaving Uzbekistan as a legally-registered migrant worker are so complex that the vast majority evade the system.
The Expert Working Group, a non-government pool of analysts in Uzbekistan, says the application process takes two weeks and is expensive for someone who almost by definition will be on a low income or else unemployed.
In any case, the migration agency is not in a position to find jobs abroad for many or most of the people applying. So many people take a chance and go off to Russia as illegal migrants, sometimes using private employment agencies in Uzbekistan that may not deliver on promises of work.
Hayitboy Yoqubov, head of the Najot human rights group based in Khorezm region of northern Uzbekistan, explained that once people have spent several years working abroad, they drop out of the welfare system, regardless of whether their status is legal or illegal. A bureaucratic system largely unchanged since Soviet times requires them to produce paperwork unavailable to them abroad.
“When someone works abroad, they earn money but once they come back home, they cannot count on receiving, say, a pension, as they need documents confirming they have worked in Uzbekistan or have made welfare contributions there, which they won’t have,” Yoqubov said, adding that for the same reason, “If a migrant has underage children back home, his wife won’t receive child benefit.”
GOVERNMENT SHOULD SPEAK UP FOR NATIONALS ABROAD
Workers from Uzbekistan, like those from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, typically fill low-paid manual jobs on building sites, farms, the logging industry, catering and cleaning.
Yoldashev said many work 15 hours a day, six days a week, and live in “basements and other places unfit for human habitation, or in tents all year round”.
Those working illegally have no protection under the laws of the host country, and are left at the mercy of they 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.
“Our illegal status is to the advantage of the boss I work for,” Shavkat Azizov, an Uzbek working in Kazakstan, said. “We don’t have any rights. We are fed poorly, paid a pittance and badly treated.”
Dosym Satpaev, a political analyst in the Kazak city of Almaty, said, “As long as Uzbek gastarbeiters have no rights, they’ll be prepared to pay off the police for the right to work. The paradox is that the number of illegal migrants is growing.”
Abuses of migrant workers’ rights are of course the host country’s problem, not Uzbekistan’s. But the Uzbek government does not speak up for its citizens in the same way as the Tajik and Kyrgyz leaderships, which have attempted to intercede with Moscow and agree basic terms, at least for the legal migrants.
The Uzbek migration agency points to a 2007 agreement with Russia that guarantees protection for the rights and interests of nationals of Uzbekistan.
But rights activists would like to see the government sign up to international agreements regulating all aspects of labour migration, from the initial job search through work abroad all the way to repatriation, such as the 1990 United Nations Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families and the Convention Concerning Migrations in Abusive Conditions and the Promotion of Equality of Opportunity and Treatment of Migrant Workers.
Central Asians working abroad are not only exposed to hazardous conditions that can lead to accidents, they are also the target of racist attacks in Russia.
The Moscow Bureau for Human Rights said 11 Uzbek workers were killed and six were seriously injured in assaults in Russia last year. The Najot group said four more were killed this summer..
A migrant in the Russian city of Novosibirsk, who gave his name as Bahrom, told IWPR of an increasing trend for Uzbeks to simply disappear off the face of the earth. Relatives often went to the local Russian police for help, but nothing ever happened.
Yoqubov said most cases of murder and disappearance were never investigated by the authorities in the host country.
He is certain that if Uzbek government officials formally asked their Russian or Kazak counterparts to look into such cases, there would be more chance of action being taken. But he says that in his experience, this never happens.
“The office of the Prosecutor General of Uzbekistan has a department that deals with labour migration, and we’ve written to them a hundred times asking them to take steps to search for missing migrants. Unfortunately, I cannot give a single example to date of where the prosecution service or any other government agency has been able to help with the search,” Yoqubov said. “They virtually never give us a reply. Once they responded that since the illegal migrant hadn’t informed the authorities when he left the country, they couldn’t do anything.”
As well as active official intervention when migrants get into trouble abroad, Yoqubov would like to see a series of measures taken in Uzbekistan itself to ensure migrants are protected before they set up, such as bank accounts for them to pay in their wages and where money would be deducted to cover emergency funds.
“If these migrants found their jobs legally, they would be known to the embassy, they would make welfare payments to the Uzbek government, and the authorities would be more interested in their lives and would find the money to search for them [if they went missing],” he said.
Shohida Sarvarova and Kamilla Abdullaeva are pseudonyms for Uzbek journalists.
This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.
The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway.
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