Uzbek Migration: low pay, life sentence

Maria Yanovskaya
3 December 2008


Why do so many Uzbeks become migrant workers? Where do they go? And why, despite horrific exploitation, do so few return? These are among the main issues addressed in a recent report which brings together the results of sociological surveys on migration in 2006-7. [i]

The research, conducted before the financial crisis, clearly does not reflect the current situation, where migrant workers are losing their jobs and may have to return home. But covering problems of labour migration both external and internal as it does, it is revealing about attitudes to migration in Uzbek society, as it is about the identity of today's labour migrants. It describes the problems of migrant workers in Russia and in Uzbekistan itself and overturns  entrenched stereotypes.

Why they leave

They leave because they cannot find reasonably paid work at home. They leave when there are too many dependents in the family, when they need to marry off a daughter; pay for their children's education, or build (extend) a house, and there is no way to earn these sums without leaving home.

„You can find work in our kishlak, but the level of salary here does not suit people, so they go to work in other places. You can survive on the salary here, but you can't pay for a wedding or build a house. Who is leaving these days? People who have to marry off their sons or hold a wedding for their daughter, or people with two or three families living in their home, but who have no money to build a house" (Employee of a Makhallya committee, Namangan province).

To find work in Uzbekistan which offers enough money to solve these financial problems is very difficult. This is not because the migrant workers lack education or qualifications: 33.3% of external labour migrants have higher education, 31% have secondary education, and 26.2% have specialised secondary education.

The problem is that there is really no work in Uzbekistan. And everyone has children.

„My eldest daughter is of marriageable age and we needed money.  You know the customs: providing a large dowry and housing if possible. My next daughter was still studying at the institute, and my younger son was already in the 9th-10th class at that time.  He had to prepare for applying to an institute, or enlist in the army" (a male migrant in Tashkent)

Men make the decision to leave after consulting their family. But women take the decision on their own, as the ones who leave to find work are usually single women: divorced, widows or single mothers. Or young women who are helping their parents to bring up their younger brothers and sisters.

„What work can you find in the village? All you can do is work in the field all year. My husband tried to earn more, and went to work in the field when he had a temperature, and when it was raining. He earned peanuts  - not enough for anything... When he died, everything became my responsibility - the children and the household. It's hard for a woman with children in the village". (Migrant woman, Andijan)

Wives are reluctant to let their husbands leave: they are afraid that their husbands may stay away or find a new wife. This fear is justified. 23% of those surveyed had practically not been home in the last 18 months.

Women, who usually have small children at home, try to come back more often. But it is obvious that, even when they return home with presents and money, these absences, are very upsetting for both the children and mothers.

„My son really needs me. If I go one day without ringing him, he almost cries. At the moment he effectively has no father or mother."

„My absence has a strong effect on the moral side of my children's life. They don't have a father and when I am away they live with my mother-in-law. But she treats them very harshly and they don't want to go there. They say that she is mean and hard.  Every time I go away, I leave them with her with a heavy heart. But I have no choice: we need to survive somehow."

„If we could find work here, nothing would make us leave," say the majority of those surveyed.  Migrant workers pay too highly for the chance to earn $300-$400 a month if they work in Russia, and 145,000 sums [ii]($115) if they work in Uzbekistan. Of this money they send 90,000 sums home. A quarter of the internal migrants surveyed admitted that they receive less than $50 a month. But 90%  believe that this salary is still better and more than what they could find near their homes. Research shows that the salary of a labour migrant is 5-10 times higher than any other family income.

„My husband only sends me money by post. We tried to send the money with friends, but for some reason it doesn't arrive in time, sometimes not at all or only some of it arrives. People who bring money with them say that they were stopped by someone, or things like that and you can't prove anything or demand anything from them. So we receive money by post. My husband tries to send money once a month. He earns $300 a month himself."

Life in the basement

Migrant workers usually live in very difficult conditions. To spend less on housing, people prefer to reach an agreement with their employer on free housing, or they rent a bed in a room which they share with several other migrants. This accommodation usually has no conveniences and not everyone is able to wash.

„We had to pay $80 for a bed. People lived like cockroaches in this apartment: there was a line for the toilet in the morning. Or we had to look for a toilet in town to freshen up. I went to the bathhouse to wash, but I had all my things stolen there". (Female migrant).

„We live right on the building site, so we try to make the basement more comfortable. We put heating in before the winter, but sometimes in frosty weather we were lying on the concrete floor. The boss took pity on us and brought some warm blankets and a heater. On public holidays we pitch in together and treat ourselves to meat, but that doesn't happen very often". (Male migrant).

„The unbearable cold ruins your health, and the damp... it's no surprise that people fall ill! And how many people disappear without trace! My husband also drinks there, but he says that he only does this so as to be able to endure the cold and stay healthy" (Wife of a migrant).

When the boom began

The boom in labour migration from Central Asian countries started in 2000. Since then, thanks to the rise in energy prices in Russia and Kazakhstan, the economic situation has stabilized and wars in trouble spots have gradually died down. By the beginning of 2000 there were also fewer opportunities for the shuttle trade??, which had been so popular in the 1990s. Soviet social privileges and free social services had also become a thing of the past. So people went to places where they could earn this money.

Everyone went looking for work, even Uzbeks and Tajiks, although the study we have cited considers them the „traditional settled population of Central Asia", for whom labour migration is not typical. Even women went to find work - although just a few years ago it was difficult to imagine that an Uzbek or Tajik woman would leave her children and home to look for work. But the men left (or died), and the women were forced to go to look for work to raise their children.

„My husband died, and my fellow villagers and brother-in-law suggested that I go to Moscow with them to work. I agreed, and my sister supported me too. I had to raise my children, and I couldn't earn anything in my home town. Now at least my children are not hungry, and I send my grandchild parcels, and money to my children."

The post-Soviet migration space

Where did they go? Initially, to gain experience, people became internal labour migrants. They usually went to Tashkent (70-80% of internal migrants), but there they encountered problems with registration, the police, and finding housing. Then, when they had saved some money, they went abroad: to Russia and Kazakhstan, usually illegally. Even official statistics, however, show that 80% of external labour migrants from Uzbekistan go to Russia and in Kazakhstan Uzbeks make up 57.6% of all migrants from CIS countries.

„New nations may have been formed very rapidly, but for the majority of people there is still just one former USSR migration space," the study says. „There are close family and cultural ties between the peoples of the new countries, common systems of transport and communications, to a large extent still one language of communication and similar education systems.   The complementarity of the labour markets, the similar mentality and behavioural patterns were also a factor, as was the fact that, with rare exceptions, no visa is required to cross the borders of CIS countries."

Most migrants to Russia currently come from Central Asia and Kazakhstan: they provide two thirds of the increased migration from all CIS countries. Central Asia has recently become the main source of labour immigration, and is likely to become the main provider of migrants to Russia.

Changes in legislation

Before 2007 the procedure of legalising labour migrants in Russia was extremely difficult and only led to increased corruption. But after 2007 Russian migration legislation changed, and now the legalisation process is significantly easier.

In the past, the police were responsible for registering migrants. It wasn't only the owner of the residence where the migrant wanted to register who had to present himself to the police - everyone living there had to agree to the registration. Now you only have to write a statement at the local migration service department, indicating the address of the workplace or the intermediary firm. The stub from this statement with a stamp of acceptance certifies that the migrant is a legal resident. The migrant's passport and immigration card is required for the statement. If the card has been lost, it can be restored by paying a fine. The new legislation is thought to reduce corruption.

„It's not difficult to work, but it is to get through customs. There are many people who want to work in Russia, and at customs they check documents and take money, both when you enter the country with money for initial living expenses, and when you leave the country when you are taking home money and presents for your family."

Russian permits and visas

The study demonstrates that in Russia there is now a quota: 6 million permits for foreign citizens from countries without a visa regime with Russia, and 308,800 visa invitations for immigrants who come to work in Russia.  (In November 2008 the Russian government confirmed a quota to issue almost 4 million work permits to foreign citizens in 2009. In 2008 the quota was 3.4 million  - Ed.) The simplified legislation led to 85% of migrants registering in the first half of 2007. Previously, only half of all migrant workers were registered.

Furthermore, in Russia migrants now receive a „labour card", which allows them to look for work and change their workplace if necessary. In the past work permits were obtained by the employer, which mean that migrant workers were completely dependent on them. Now migrants can change their jobs, because employers are entitled to hire migrant workers in possession of a labour card. To receive this card, migrants must undergo a medical examination within one month, and confirm that they do not have AIDS, tuberculosis or venereal diseases. Today, three quarters of migrants in Russia have received immigration cards - in the past as many as this worked without them.


However, the work of the migration services is not coordinated, officials are poorly briefed, and it certainly cannot be said that corruption has been eliminated. Flows of illegal migration are not controlled, and the rights of migrants are violated everywhere - by both employers and the police. Migrants face harsh exploitation, there are frequent cases of deceit and non-payment of money, and migrant workers often become the slaves of their employers. As these migrants are usually illegal and do not know the language or the everyday culture of the country where they have come to work, they are practically unable to appeal for aid to the authorities or ordinary citizens of the host country.

„I fell ill after a week, and had to spend everything I had earned on treatment. I treated myself; fortunately my parents are doctors. They don't let you into hospital there without registration."

Internal labour migration in Uzbekistan

The figures for internal labour migration in Uzbekistan paint an interesting picture. 70-80% of those looking for work go to Tashkent and try their luck at the mardikor  (local informal job markets - Ed.).  80.5% of people looking for work in Uzbekistan are rural residents, and 83.8% of mardikors or labourers (people looking for work at mardikor bazaars - Ed.) are rural residents who have never worked officially.   60.9% of migrants are young people (16-29 years old) who have no qualifications or professional education. The majority of young migrants who have not graduated from secondary school are from large families.

23.2% of migrant workers are women, 45% of whom do not have husbands: half of them have not yet married, a third are divorced, and the rest either live separately from their husbands or are widows.

The men work at building sites, in retail trade, or at agricultural and repair works; the women do cleaning and washing, agricultural work, sort and pack fruit and vegetables, wash dishes and help in the kitchen during important public holidays. 1.3% of women are engaged in prostitution.

The women's work is more monotonous than the men's, and their working conditions are often more difficult. But employers do not usually take this into account, and pay women 30% less than men. Both women and men without secondary education are forced to agree to do any work, as they have no other choice.

„The most unpleasant job is peeling radishes in March, because in March the weather is still cold. I remember this because this year we washed radishes at the beginning of March. The water was very cold. Our hands turned blue from the cold water (female mardikor, Namangan province)

The majority of migrants have 2-5 dependents; half the men and three quarters of the women looking for work have young children. 54% of migrants support three or more children and relatives, and only 13% of migrants work „for themselves", mostly men.

Migrants usually end up doing unskilled labour, so their own professional skills gradually atrophy. Working far away from home ruins family relationships (families often fall apart);  children grow up without parental supervision, and this causes many problems in future.

The workday of an illegal migrant lasts on average for 9 hours and 40 minutes (sometimes 18 hours - during the cherry harvest, for instance). The working week is 6 days long or 58 hours. The employer provides work tools and meagre food at an average cost of $1 dollar per person per day, with unheated accommodation lacking conveniences. People sometimes have to sleep out in the open.

The average labourer's wage is 7,000 sums a day (about $5), around 118,000 a month. Payment is by the day, and the volume of work is not fixed.

However, despite the difficult working conditions, migrants prefer not to sign official work contracts, because then they will have to pay for registration and pay taxes.  For this reason people prefer to work illegally, to risk being deceived (non-payment of promised wages is almost an everyday event) and to give bribes from time to time - just to be left alone and given the chance to work. The migrants themselves have no interest in legalisation, and nor have the authorities or the employers. A rural family from Andijan say of the conditions of work of ‘their' migrant in Russia: „He works illegally. On payday a policeman waits at the exit, and all the illegal workers give him 500 rubles each."

87% of internal migrants are never registered, and 79% never get temporary registration.

Temporary work, permanently

The majority of migrant workers see their work as temporary:  psychologically it is difficult to imagine that you will live your whole life starving and in inhumane conditions, far from your family and friends, saving and sending home every penny you earn. But studies show that once people begin working as labour migrants, they continue to do this year in year out.   Sixty percent of migrants have been working far from home for between 3 and 10 years. There are those who have been doing it for as much as 15 years. Most hope that one day everything will come right in Uzbekistan, and they will be able to find jobs near their homes.

„I don't want to stay there because I do not have family and friends there. My plans for the future involve earning money there, buying a car here and working as a taxi driver".

Migrant workers may see their work as temporary. But they are in no hurry to return home. For returning labour migrants are regarded as failures, who were unable to earn a lot of money and ruined their health. Even their own families look askance at these migrants: if you couldn't establish yourself there and find work, then you are not much of a breadwinner. Many prefer to work at the hardest and most thankless jobs in the city rather than return to their villages.

Thirty percent of the population of Uzbekistan is prepared to leave the country to earn money - this is a very high level of migration.  In any year 15-40% of families send someone away to work. Leaving the country to work is often hampered by the lack of initial capital: money is needed for a ticket and the initial living expenses, until a job is found.

 „After we decided that my wife would go away to earn money, I got into a huge amount of debt, because we had to sell everything in the house. My wife travelled with a relative who gave her money for the journey and living expenses. I then spent 6 months working off the debt."

Less than 8% of those surveyed in 2006-2007 intended to return home for good over the next six months.  Half the migrants will return home if there is work there. A third plan to return when they are well-off.   Only 28% of migrants, according to the research, reply confidently that they will not under any circumstances try to go back home. Women do not want to return home more often than men: public opinion regards women who return much more critically and negatively. 30% of women surveyed do not want to return home under any circumstances (over 40% of these women were from towns and cities).

Once they adapt to the new environment labour migrants often start new families (or bring their own families to the place where they work) and do not wish to return home. Many of them take out new citizenship.

The majority of labour migrants surveyed believe that many problems would disappear if the government were to sign the necessary interstate agreements, for example to simplify border and customs control procedures.

The study shows once more that the survival of most families in Uzbekistan depends directly on the earnings of migrants, both external and internal. When migrant workers start being laid off in Russia this will not just mean that Russian streets are filled with rubbish - which is quite normal and expected. It will also mean that most families in Uzbekistan will starve. This will cause a social explosion.

[i] "Labour migration in the republic of Uzbekistan: social, legal and gender aspects", published in Tashkent under the aegis of the UN Development Programme in Uzbekistan and the Gender Programme of the Swiss Embassy in Uzbekistan.

[ii] The Uzbek currency


The article was first published in Russian at the www.fergana.ru site

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