Kyrgyz seek jobs abroad

Many work in unsafe conditions for low pay

By Asyl Osmonaliyeva


BISHKEK – September 27, 2009, dawned like any other day for Akylbek Rayimov. But fate betrayed him.

“In the morning, I took the metro to the Business Centre in Moscow, where our construction site was located. Then I changed and started to work.”

Rayimov was digging in the foundation of a future apartment building. “All I remember is a heavy shove. I fell on my back and then fainted,” Rayimov said.

“When I came to, my knees hurt badly and other workers ... told me I had been crushed by a landslide. ... The doctor later said I would be disabled for life.”

Rayimov returned to Kyrgyzstan penniless and has since lived with his wife and 5-year-old son on his parents’ pension.

“I had nobody to sue (in Moscow) – I was a second-class person there,” he said. Rayimov is one of many Kyrgyzstan labour migrants who feel economically compelled to take unsafe jobs in Russia and Kazakhstan.

The April and June unrest in Kyrgyzstan increased the migrant worker outflow by 25% compared to last year, when 350,000 to 800,000 Kyrgyz worked in Russia and about 100,000 in Kazakhstan, according to the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Migration.

The largest outflow of labour migrants has been from the country’s southern regions. But even before the unrest, the south was the biggest source of migrant Kyrgyz labour, according to the 2009 OSCE survey “Impact of the Global Financial Crisis on Labour Migration from Kyrgyzstan to Russia.”

“Migrants find it very difficult to survive in Russia, let alone in European countries,” former Migration and Employment Deputy Minister Melis Dzhunushaliyev said. “In many cases, it is a matter of sheer survival.”

Migrants, especially day labourers, earn much less in Kazakhstan and Russia than the two countries’ citizens do, he said. But Kyrgyz nevertheless go there in search of a better life.

“Their hopes seldom come true,” said Fatakh Temirkunov, former migration department head at the ministry. They rent rooms and cram 30 to 40 people in them, he said.

“Many Kyrgyz go abroad in search of better opportunities because they do have no faith in domestic stability,” said former interim Vice-Premier Omurbek Tekebayev. “We understand them and must do whatever we can to help them return home.”

Zayir, 28, of Bishkek, who has already experienced the hardships of labour migration, is planning to seek a job in Russia again.

“When I was a construction worker in Moscow, I lived with my compatriots in trailers right on the construction site. We had to work hard. ... We were ready to work under any conditions.”

Employers always try to pinch pennies on safety measures, Zayir said.

“People sometimes work without safety belts and fall from great heights or get injured working with faulty electrical tools – and employers are never held liable,” he said.

“Moreover ... we get fleeced by employers and police officers,” Zayir said. “The employers pay us less than they promised, and policemen carry out raids that always end in us paying them money – and this at a time when we even skimp on meals to send back home as much as we can.”

He also pointed to another threat – skinheads.

As many as 10 Kyrgyzstan migrants were murdered in Russia in 2009 because of their ethnicity, according to Moscow’s Sova Anti-Racist Centre.

Kyrgyz Ambassador to Russia Raikul Attokurov even met with a skinhead leader in Moscow last year, but neither side disclosed the content of their talks. Like many others, Zayir sees labour migration as the only way to survive.

“Prices for food and merchandise keep rising and our children are growing up, so we have to earn more and more to support them,” he said.

He and his family rent a room outside Bishkek. He dreams of buying land in town and building a house of his own. The capital has some job openings, but if you don't own your home, all your money goes to rent, he said, adding that work in the countryside is scant.

The children will miss their father greatly when he leaves for Moscow, his wife said.

“The younger son spends a few days in bed with a temperature each time Zayir goes to work abroad.”

“I wouldn’t look at labour migration as a problem,” said Nurdin Tynayev, head of the Centre for the Employment Abroad of Kyrgyz Citizens.

“It isn’t a problem – it’s a fact of life. ... This process should be wisely managed to make sure our migrants are not deprived, their rights are duly observed and their stay in other countries is fully legal.”

“Violations of migrant workers’ rights are a problem for two states and each individual concerned,” Dzhunushaliyev said. “The rules of fair play need to be established and observed.”

Aibek Karabayev contributed to this report

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