RFE/RL: Central Asian Migrant Workers Choosing Kazakhstan Over Russia Despite Lower Pay

Dilshodbek, a migrant laborer from the eastern Uzbek city of Qoqand, has worked in Russia for more than a decade.

But this year he is going to neighboring Kazakhstan instead.

“The pay is much lower in Kazakhstan, but I calculated that there won’t be much difference in the end,” the 42-year-old Dilshodbek says. “My cousin, who went to Russia in May, spent about $600 for a plane ticket and another $300 for a work permit. You can get to Kazakhstan spending a fraction of that money.”

Unprecedentedly high prices for plane tickets amid the coronavirus pandemic and costly work permits in Russia have forced many Central Asian migrants, like Dilshodbek, to look for jobs in Kazakhstan, the region’s wealthiest country.

Kazakhstan seems to be equally eager to accept the migrant workers, most of whom are willing to do physical work that many locals don’t want to do. Some Kazakh regions have even paid the cost of the migrants’ journey from neighboring countries in order to get workers.

In May, authorities in the western region of Atyrau flew 600 people from Uzbekistan to work in the farming sector. A month earlier, Atyrau officials organized a special charter flight that brought 70 Uzbek migrants to work as street cleaners.

Atyrau — like many other Kazakh regions — faced a severe labor shortage in 2020 as the pandemic closed borders and prevented migrants from entering the country.

Aqturlan Ermanov, the head of an agricultural enterprise in Atyrau, was among the Kazakh employers who offered to foot the bill for workers to come from Uzbekistan. It cost about $500 per person for tickets and coronavirus tests.

Ermanov’s 1,500 hectares of cultivated farmland desperately needs workers. But in resource-rich Kazakhstan, people are increasingly unwilling to do low-skilled manual work, leaving migrants to fill vacancies on farms, construction sites, and in bazaars.

Central Asian migrants say Kazakhstan's proximity to their home countries is one factor in their decisions.

Central Asian migrants say Kazakhstan’s proximity to their home countries is one factor in their decisions.

“Migrants are a lot more reliable than our local workers,” Ermanov told Kazakh state media. “Locals often abruptly quit their jobs. For example, they work today and simply don’t show up tomorrow.”

Street sweepers in Atyrau make about $330 a month and also get additional benefits for being municipal workers. Farm workers make about $235 a month, local media report.

It’s a decent salary for migrant workers from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, where people receive lower salaries for similar work. Unemployment in those countries has been a major problem since the 1990s.

Trend Toward Kazakhstan

Russia has been a top destination for millions of Central Asian migrant workers since the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago. A much smaller portion of the region’s laborers went to Kazakhstan in the first years after the U.S.S.R.’s demise.

But that number has been steadily growing since 2014, when Russia faced an economic downturn and the sudden collapse of its currency. The declining value of the ruble meant migrants would take home considerably less money after exchanging it for their local currency.

According to official statistics, the number of Uzbek migrant workers in Kazakhstan has increased at least tenfold in the last five years.

Before the pandemic, there were an estimated 1 million Central Asian migrants working in Kazakhstan. The exact number there now is unknown because a significant portion of them work illegally for private employers, avoiding taxes and exploiting their visa-free stays.

The largest group among Central Asian workers in Kazakhstan is from Uzbekistan. Before the pandemic, some sources estimated there to be nearly 360,000. Despite the pandemic-related border closures, there were still some 209,300 Uzbeks in Kazakhstan in January, according to the Uzbek Economy and Poverty Reduction Ministry.

The second-largest group is Kyrgyz migrants. In January, Kyrgyzstan’s State Migration Service said about 35,000 Kyrgyz worked in Kazakhstan, a fellow member of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). As citizens of an EEU member state, Kyrgyz citizens can legally live and work in Kazakhstan.

According to official statistics from Tajikistan, nearly 14,000 Tajik nationals worked in Kazakhstan before the pandemic.

There is no data available about the number of Turkmen working in Kazakhstan, as the secretive government in Ashgabat doesn’t release such information.

Central Asian migrants say Kazakhstan’s proximity to their home countries, similarities in their language and culture, and relatively simple requirements to obtain a work permit have made it an attractive place for them to seek work. Russian work-permit requirements also include a test in Russian language and history that migrants don’t face in Kazakhstan.

No Fear

Unlike the situation in Russia, hate crimes and xenophobic attacks on migrants are rare in Kazakhstan.

“I made about $700 a month working at a private dacha in Russia until 2019,” Dilshodbek says. “In Kazakhstan I might get about half of that. But at least I don’t have to look over my shoulder all the time, constantly afraid of being attacked or insulted.”

Media and human rights groups have documented multiple cases of attacks — including deadly ones — on migrants in Russia. Russian officials acknowledge the public attitude toward migrant workers has hardened in recent years.

“In a survey in 2020, one-quarter of respondents expressed a negative attitude toward migrants,” Magomedsalam Magomedov, a deputy chief of staff for the Russian presidential administration, told local media. “The survey indicated that such an attitude is only getting worse: the number of people who disapprove of migrants has grown by 7.5 percent since last year. It has a significant impact on the state of interethnic relationships in the country.”

Realistic Expectations

But it’s not all smooth sailing in Kazakhstan, either. Migrants who have worked there for several years say the newcomers must have realistic expectations and an open mind.

“It’s not difficult to find work and earn money in Kazakhstan,” says 38-year-old Jasur, who hails from Uzbekistan and runs a small bakery in the southern Kazakh city of Shymkent. Before finding success in Kazakhstan, Jasur was devastated when he didn’t get paid for “a whole year of work.”

Jasur says he first came to Kazakhstan with his father and five other men from his native Namangan Province five years ago. The men verbally agreed with a Kazakh employer to build a house. The employer paid them $4,000 in advance and promised to pay the remaining $10,000 once the work was done. No contracts were signed between the parties and the Uzbek migrants didn’t get a work permit in Kazakhstan after entering the country on a tourist visa.

Jasur recalls that it took a year for them to complete the construction, but the employer died in a traffic accident before paying them. The employer’s relatives refused to pay the money owed to the workers. With no official documents, Jasur and the others were unable to seek help from the authorities to get their money.

“You would think they are your own fellow Muslims, fellow Central Asians, and wouldn’t let you down, but that’s not always true,” Jasur told RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service.

Learning his lesson, Jasur has since worked and lived legally in Kazakhstan. His small bakery is popular with the locals in Shymkent. “I earn enough to cover my own living costs, to send money to my family [in Uzbekistan] once a week, and set aside some for the future,” he says.

Jasur says he gets frequent phone calls from many people from his village in Namangan who want to come to Kazakhstan to work. The villagers complain that there are no jobs in Namangan and seek advice about the situation in Kazakhstan.

There was also no language barrier in Shymkent for Jasur, as he easily learned Kazakh, which belongs to the same group of Turkic languages as his native Uzbek. Cultural and culinary similarities as well as common social values and traditions have made it easier for Jasur and other migrants from neighboring countries to adapt to life in Kazakhstan.

But life and work in Kazakhstan is only a temporary arrangement for Jasur. He sees his future at home in Namangan and says he has been saving money to build a house in his home village.

But for the time being that remains a distant dream.

Farangis Najibullah