Kazakhstan’s resource-fuelled economic boom and thriving market economy have turned it into the economic powerhouse of Central Asia, setting it even farther apart from the poorer, less developed and reform-resistant economies of the region.
Kazakhstan’s resource-fuelled economic boom and thriving market economy have turned it into the economic powerhouse of Central Asia, setting it even farther apart from the poorer, less developed and reform-resistant economies of the region. Now the second most dynamic economy in the post-Soviet space after Russia, its Gross Domestic Product ($186.27 billion in 2011) is three times the combined GDP of neighbouring Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
Rising economic growth and prosperity have transformed Kazakhstan from an emigration country of the 1990s to a flourishing migrant-receiving state. The void left by the departure of 1.8 million Russians-speakers in its first decade of independence is being filled by the return of ethnic Kazakh diaspora (referred to as oralman) under the state-sponsored repatriation programme.
'Rising economic growth and prosperity have transformed Kazakhstan from an emigration country of the 1990s to a flourishing migrant-receiving state.'
By 2010 about 800,000 had relocated to Kazakhstan, placing Kazakhstan among top ten migrant-receiving states. But what is less known abroad and little discussed within Kazakhstan is the fact that, after Russia, it is the next regular destination for earning livelihoods, albeit without a legal work permit or a formal status, for a growing number of Central Asians.
Legal status and jobs
Migrant workers from other states of Central Asia remain uncounted and invisible to the state authorities due to the lack of an appropriate legal framework and labour policies, which dooms them to an ‘illegal’ or ‘irregular’ status. These are Kazakhstan’s ‘gastarbaitery’ (the Russianized plural of German Gastarbeiter), a term that is widely used to designate the sizable pool of unskilled or semi-skilled foreign migrant workers from Central Asia. Though no longer widely used in Germany, the term has arrived through the Russian media into Kazakhstan along with its negative baggage and racial stereotype.
Despite the lower wages, many migrant workers from Central Asia choose Kazakhstan to look for jobs. It is closer to their home countries, and it is easier for them to adapt to local cultural norms and values (photo: Fergana News Agency, all rights reserved)
In the absence of reliable government statistics, the International Organization of Migration (IOM) estimated that in 2010 migrant workers in Kazakhstan number from 500,000 to a million people, with almost two thirds of them from Uzbekistan, some 25% from Kyrgyzstan and the rest from Tajikistan and other CIS states. Others suggest that the number of foreign workers in Kazakhstan is likely to reach 3 million within the next years and only 200,000-300,000 of these are likely to be working legally.
At least half of them work in construction, performing what are considered 3-D jobs (‘dirty, dangerous, and degrading’) shunned by the locals. Several others work in the expanding service sector – catering, transportation, delivery, retail and sales; and the remaining work as seasonal labourers in agriculture – in tobacco, cotton fields, foodstuff packing and processing.
'Migrant workers from other states of Central Asia remain uncounted and invisible to the state authorities due to the lack of an appropriate legal framework and labour policies, which dooms them to an ‘illegal’ or ‘irregular’ status.'
The ready availability of cheap semi-skilled and short-term migrant labour is contributing significantly to spurring rapid growth in construction and service sectors in the prominent cities Astana, Almaty, Shymkent, Atyrau, and Aktau. However, no authoritative official data, statistics or studies on the role of migrant workers in the labour force or in the informal economy exist. It is becoming increasingly apparent that although the state authorities continue to combat ‘illegal’ migration, regarding it as a security threat or as promoting criminal activities, they covertly allow the influential recruiters or employers to hire the gastarbaitery.
Cultural affinity, legal barriers
How do these ‘guest-workers’ find work, negotiate the risks involved and find a niche for themselves in Kazakhstan? With its widespread reputation for ethnic stability and tolerance, Kazakhstan is seen as a more hospitable place than Russia for fellow Central Asian migrants, particularly the young, first time migrants. For Bakhtiyor and Raushan, two young Uzbek men in their early 20s from Fergana, Kazakhstan’s new capital, Astana, is modern, vibrant, easy to get around and full of opportunities. They left home for the first time to look for work for in construction so that they could earn money for their own marriages and those of their sisters.
For more experienced migrant workers such as Babamurad and several of his extended kin who were working together as a 26-men construction brigade, the pay in Kazakhstan is lower than in Russia but its proximity makes it more convenient. All are ethnic Tajiks from the same mahalla in Bukhara, hired by a sub-contractor through their connections in Russia to build a mosque in Karaganda and cottages for Astana’s wealthy. Several of them have been working in various cities in Russia over the past 7 years, where ‘work is plentiful, but so are the racists and skinheads.’ The absence of overt racism and the relative ease of forming connections with the locals on the basis of shared Islamic practices and linguistic affinity are appealing to the initiates as well as to the veteran migrants.
Notwithstanding these positives and its assiduously cultivated image as a peaceful and tolerant multiethnic state with a long tradition of hospitality, Kazakhstan is neither a migrant-welcoming nor a migrant-seeking state. The term ‘migrant’ or ‘migration’, as used in law, official statements and media reports refers to ethnic Kazakh returnees - oralman - and to the internal rural migrants to the major cities. Even the oralman, who are assured of Kazakhstani citizenship and settlement assistance, face innumerable problems in negotiating the legal-institutional and bureaucratic obstacles in formalizing their status.
While the ruling establishment, policy experts and academics pay scant attention to the growing number of labour migrants, the urban residents as well as the media tend to lump together all categories of migrants: the oralman who don’t speak Russian well, the migrants from rural areas living in the city without registration (propiska), and the gastarbeitery, clustered around construction sites or bazaars.
'With its widespread reputation for ethnic stability and tolerance, Kazakhstan is seen as a more hospitable place than Russia for fellow Central Asian migrants, particularly the young, first time migrants.'
But unlike the oralman and the internal migrants, who at least have formal legal rights and entitlements as citizens, the Central Asian migrant workers lack a legal status, rights or social protection which renders them most vulnerable to exploitation, extortion by officials, arbitrary fines and deportations. Here’s how an article in a local media describes them, with the aim of highlighting their vulnerability:
‘Gastarbaiter - an ill-shaven person with a pale look, and smell of cheap deodorant. [This] labour migrant is shabbily-dressed with a scared look. He’s afraid of everything: cold, police, dark streets on which well-fed lads walk with hands tucked in their pockets, ever-so watchful babushki [Rn. grannies] in the bazaars who suspect a thief or a terrorist in the face of a foreign nationality. He’s vulnerable from all corners because he has no rights, is cut off from his homeland and doesn’t know the laws of a foreign land.’
Modern architecture in Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan, is the best evidence of the country’s economic boom. The local construction industry there relies heavily on the migrant work force (photo: www.flickr.com, peretzp's photostream).
In contrast to the juridical category of Gastarbeiter in Germany, who were brought in legally as contract workers for a fixed term and offered legal and economic protection, these migrants have no job contract or work permit. The typical Turkish Gastarbeiter, on the other hand, was alone, facing socio-cultural isolation and lacking any proficiency in German, whereas most migrants from the near abroad either have some personal connections or quickly form these, and are able to mingle with the locals on the basis of cultural-linguistic and religious affinity.
The migrants who agreed to meet me were evidently those who had networks or ‘friends’, and thus more protected than the vast majority of the more vulnerable migrants who work in near complete isolation from the locals, shun any contact with strangers and strive to remain invisible to the state. They acknowledged the help and goodwill extended by the locals – be it the employer, intermediary or a business partner – and mentioned how they together had to find ways of dealing with the stringent regulations preventing them from working and avoid the gaze of the police and officials.
Legal and bureaucratic hurdles
Kazakhstan adopted a new Migration Law in August 2011, after considerable delay but without adequate public discussion. It identifies three key directions and objectives of migration: 1] facilitating repatriation, settlement, and integration of the oralman, denoting an ethno-national vision; 2] maintenance of national security and prevention of illegal migration, reflecting a ‘securitization’ perspective; 3] management of internal migratory processes from rural to urban areas, particularly resettlement of citizens residing in ecologically depressed regions to other regions, which addresses issues of social welfare and equal distribution. The law also contains quota provisions for highly-skilled foreign workers. But the quota set is miniscule: it was set at 66,300 in 2009, then reduced by a third in 2011; it avoids any reference to the shortages in various other sectors; and the mechanisms and implementation remain deficient.
The law is also silent about the status of the CIS labour migrants who enter the country legally under the visa-free regime, indicating the purpose of their visit as ‘personal’ on the migration card when evidently looking for paid work for the duration of their stay. Such migrants are required to register within 5 days, may remain only for the authorized period of stay (reduced from 90 to 30 days after political instability in Kyrgyzstan in April 2010) and cannot work.
The apparently simple task of visiting the local Migration Department, filling out the registration form and supplying the address of a temporary residence with the name of the property owner may take a few hours or a few days. Most migrants are deterred from going in person to register by the fear that the authorities will deliberately look for mistakes on the form, demand further documents, question them about their intent to visit Kazakhstan or use the information they provide to monitor them. They often fail to grant the registration within the time limit so that they can demand bribes. ‘It is much easier to pay the required 3000-5000 tenge ($20-$33) to an intermediary or a friend than to spend the precious work time in the queue and to risk not being able to register in time,’ said a migrant from Bishkek, highlighting what is a widespread practice.
'The migrants working in the bazaars as traders, shopkeepers, in catering or cleaning jobs tend to be protected by their employers.'
The migrants working in the bazaars as traders, shopkeepers, in catering or cleaning jobs tend to be protected by their employers. A majority of those working in the multiethnic mosaic of Kazakhstan’s bazaars are of non-Kazakh nationality. Alia, an oralman who came to Almaty from Tashkent in the late 1990s, sells tea and pirozhki [Rn. pies] in Almaty’s barakholka [Rn. flea market] bazaar. She agreed to be my interlocutor and introduced me to other migrants.
I asked her why other nationalities and migrants, and not Kazakhs, are so visible. Her response: ‘Of course all these stalls are owned by Kazakhs [Kazakhstani citizens] who rent them out to others. Legally, only a Kazakhstani national may own the stalls and work there. So all those [migrants] selling goods are neither the official owners nor employees. And virtually all the police, migration officials, those in charge of migrants’ registration, tax collection, health and safety inspection, compliance with hygiene and sanitary standards, and those organizing raids and checks are Kazakhs.’
Typically, the legal owner of a stall in the bazaar, who can only be a Kazakhstani national or permanent resident, leases it to migrants or non-citizens. He or she arranges registration and other relevant documentation for a set fee of 3000-5000 tenge (depending on citizenship and other factors), helps with obtaining housing and offers overall protection from the police.
Gulnara, whose husband is a policeman, owns three retail outlets in the barakholka. One is leased to a Kyrgyz woman who, together with members of her extended family (shuttling back and forth between Almaty and Bishkek to manage their legal status), sells garments made in Bishkek. Her husband drives a ‘taxi’ between Almaty and Bishkek and also carries passports of fellow Kyrgyz migrants to secure a new migration card. The other two are leased to Kyrgyz and Uzbek migrants selling fruit and vegetables. Gulnara is a ‘fixer’ who recognises that her business interests and the well-being of migrants are interlinked: she also ran a marriage agency that helped migrants to obtain citizenship or residency in Kazakhstan through marriage.
Alisher, an Uzbek from Andijan, is a contractor with permanent residency in Kazakhstan (through marriage to a Kazakhstani citizen) and has opted to retain his Uzbek passport. He frequently travels to Andijan to recruit construction workers. ‘These are my family,’ he said as he introduced me to the young Uzbek men on the construction site. ‘Are there no Kazakh workers?’ I asked him. He laughed and said, ‘Kazakhs don’t know how to work!’ Connections with the police enable him to bring workers from Uzbekistan and protect them. ‘Work keeps them away from Islam and narcotics,’ he averred.
Kazakhstan’s Migration Law defines an ‘illegal migrant’ simply as a person who has ‘violated the laws of the Republic of Kazakhstan pertaining to migration,’ offering no further elaboration. Migrants are routinely charged for violating terms of stay under Article 394, Part 1 of the Code ‘On Violations by foreign citizens or stateless people of rules of stay in Kazakhstan’ and deported for repeated violations under Part II of the same code. They negotiate the one-month limit by leaving the country to re-enter on a new migration card with a new one-month permit.
'An entire informal industry of acquiring documentation has emerged: train conductors facilitate the acquisition of new migration cards for those who have overstayed their authorised term, bus and taxi drivers or other intermediaries carry documents back and forth with the necessary stamp or to facilitate the safe passage home of a person who has overstayed his registration period.'
Sharof, from Tajikistan, goes to Bishkek every month together with many Kyrgyz in order to obtain a new entry stamp. Many now find it is easier and cheaper to pay someone to take their passport to the border for a new entry stamp. An entire informal industry of acquiring documentation has emerged: train conductors facilitate the acquisition of new migration cards for those who have overstayed their authorised term, bus and taxi drivers or other intermediaries carry documents back and forth with the necessary stamp or to facilitate the safe passage home of a person who has overstayed his registration period.
Many simply overstay – the construction job needs to be completed in order to collect the payment, the documents are in possession of the employer or middlemen, they may lose their job and pay for the work completed so far if they leave. Migrants who overstay can now pay an ‘administrative fine’ of about 15,000 tenge ($100), giving them a 12 day grace period within which to leave the country. Failing this, a deportation order is issued. Some choose to pay the fine in order to maximise the term of their stay and enjoy some provisional immunity from deportation. Others simply risk it in the hope of reaching a ‘settlement’ at the border.
The Department of Migration Police organises frequent inspections and raids to track down ‘illegal’ migrants and releases the data to the press. Anuar, a Dungan from Bishkek noted, ‘We know very well that they are given orders from above, need to impress their superiors on how well they’re doing their job, and that they need to earn extra money,’ adding ‘they especially come before festival times or some big event such as this summit [reference to the OSCE summit in Astana in December 2010], when they deported some 500 from the bazaars. But they weren’t really deported – just sent to Karaganda for the weekend – and all came back the next week.’
Rasul, a Tajik migrant who has now regularised his status by marrying a Kazakh, reported how raids are carried out: ‘They either come as a band when an official raid is organised or come in a group of two to four to inspect..…they always target the most vulnerable ones. those who are ignorant, inexperienced or simply not very smart.’
Almost all the people I interviewed in Almaty and Astana claimed that their documents were ‘in order.’ Further conversations revealed that virtually everyone had procured an official status through ‘friends’, intermediaries or employers by paying a fee or making other informal deals. These reveal how a complex web of personal connections, strategies and informal arrangements enable the migrants to acquire the relevant documentation to maintain their status as a ‘visitor’ and keep their real status invisible to the law. Every lacuna in the law, as well as every restriction imposed by the law, is dealt with by relying on informal connections and personal networks and resorting to quasi-legal practices.
'Migrants have a very clear understanding of their niche in the labour market and the jobs that Kazakhstani citizens are unwilling or unable to perform.'
The state remains trapped in a self-limiting discourse within the framework of ethno-nationalism and the ‘securitization’ of cross border mobility. This prevents it from addressing the complexities of a rapidly growing economy and adopting appropriate labour and migration policies. The likely result will be the further erosion of its ability to regulate or manage migration flows and the informal labour market. In this way the state has covertly opted to let migrant workers remain invisible and illegible while utilizing the ‘cheap’ labour they provide. To acknowledge the scale of undocumented or informal labour migration would require an obligation to enact appropriate legislation and regulatory measures.
Migrants have a very clear understanding of their niche in the labour market and the jobs that Kazakhstani citizens are unwilling or unable to perform. ‘There’s so much yet to build, so much work to finish…if only they let us stay for 6 months rather than making us go here and there,’…. ‘who will feed the Astanites if we don’t work here.…?’ is what some of the Uzbeks working in Astana said.
As urban Kazakhstani citizens increasingly rely on the migrants to perform so many of their housekeeping functions, it may not be too soon to conclude that many of them will establish at least a temporary abode for themselves in Kazakhstan and subvert the very notion of being gastarbaitery.
 The GDP for 2011 for Tajikistan was $6.52 billion, Uzbekistan $45.36 billion, and Kyrgyzstan $6.4 billion. Migrant remittances constitute 48% of Tajikistan’s GDP, at least a third of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP and an estimated 30% of Uzbekistan’s GDP.