Slave Laborers in Central Asia

Poverty drives them abroad to look for work, but Uzbek migrants have few defenses against forced labor and abuse in Russia and Kazakhstan

Farkhod Rakhimov needed help -- and fast. The Uzbek national sent a letter to the Ezgulik human-rights group, the organization reported in September, saying he and several fellow countrymen had been compelled to work in Atyrau, a city in western Kazakhstan. There the Uzbeks, who worked as laborers to renovate a restaurant, were being held captive by a local resident.

"Two more Uzbek guys were brought here recently. They were caught [on their arrival in the city] and beaten; their passports were taken away," Rakhimov wrote.

Vasila Inoyatova, Ezgulik's chairwoman, told Transitions Online that the men are now free and that Kazakh prosecutors are dealing with that case. But Rakhimov's situation is just the latest in a series of similar ones. Many Uzbek nationals leave their families and homes because of high unemployment rates and low wages in their native country and head to other former Soviet republics seeking work. What they find, however, is slavery.

Earlier this year, the Kazakh newspaper Megalopolis reported that 15 Uzbek men and women were working as compulsory laborers for businesspeople in the city of Aktobe. The Uzbeks were sold to their owners for 30 to 72 euros each and suffered daily insults, beatings, and rapes. The court sentenced the Kazakh businesspeople to prison or probation terms.

The problem persists in Russia, too, where Uzbek migrants often find themselves enslaved, fined, or deported for their illegal migrant status. New resolutions of area governments address the issue, but whether they will prove effective remains to be seen -- and to many, it seems unlikely.


Poverty is the main reason many Uzbeks end up working as modern-day slaves in nearby countries. "Uzbeks go to work abroad because they must maintain themselves and their families," Inoyatova said. "Because of unemployment, they can't earn a living in Uzbekistan."

With nearly 28 million people, Uzbekistan is the most populous of the five former Soviet republics in Central Asia. According to the U.S. Labor Department's 2006 Report on Foreign Labor Trends, "the government's extremely restrictive trade policies severely discourage business activity and have begun to promote Uzbekistan's accelerating economic decline." The report continues, "the main political factor affecting the business climate in Uzbekistan is corruption. Another key factor is stringent Soviet-style centralization of power, with most important decisions only made at the top."

According to the CIA World Factbook, the per capita gross domestic product in Uzbekistan last year less than a quarter of that in neighboring Kazakhstan and less than one-sixth of that in Russia.

"The accelerating economic decline in Uzbekistan has led many laborers to migrate to neighboring Kazakhstan or Russia looking for work," the report states. "Uzbek labor migrants, mostly illegal, flock to Russia and Kazakhstan to work in construction, agriculture, textiles processing, and other service sectors."

Large numbers of Uzbeks try to cross the border to Kazakhstan every day. People wait for many hours in the no-man's-land between the two countries at the Gisht Kuprik crossing point, a few kilometers from Tashkent. Many say because they have not found work in Uzbekistan, they are going to at building sites abroad. They say they have been promised monthly wages of up to 150 euros.

But once they get over the border, many Uzbeks find themselves property of Kazakh and Russian businesspeople, subject to abuse, neglect, and long hours of work.

"Uzbekistan is a supplier of modern slaves," Bakhodir Musaev, a sociologist, told TOL. "As long as there's a demand for certain kinds of unskilled labor in some countries, while an offensive against basic necessities [and human rights] continues in others, it is impossible to hold back the flow of labor migrants."

Musaev said Uzbek slavery will not disappear in the near 50 years "because rich countries are becoming richer and poor ones are growing poorer."


Many Uzbek labor migrants work in Russia. There were 102,658 officially registered labor migrants and about 1.5 million illegal immigrants from Uzbekistan in Russia in 2006, according to the Russian newspaper Novye Izvestiya.

"Villagers, farmers, blue-collar workers and students fill up the rows of those willing to earn money abroad," Erkin Ahmadov wrote in a recent article for the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, a journal published by Johns Hopkins University. "Many of them are not aware of legal procedures for labor migration, making for a large number of illegal migrants registered neither in Uzbekistan nor in Russia."

Ahmadov said the lack of legal registration facilitates conditions that support low wages, weak social support, and bad treatment of employees. "Cases of gastarbeiters [guest workers] being exploited, enslaved or killed have lately become quite frequent," Ahmadov said.

A taxi driver, who preferred to speak anonymously for self-protection, said he earns his living carrying passengers from the Kazakh border to Tashkent. Once a forced laborer in Moscow, the driver said he managed to escape because he had an acquaintance in Russian law enforcement.

"The problem is more than serious," Elena Ryabinina, the Central Asian refugee aid director for the Moscow-based Civic Assistance Committee, wrote in an e-mail. "Unfortunately, employers in Russia very often treat Uzbek (and Tajik) labor migrants like slaves -- take away their passports, keep them in conditions absolutely unfit for life, underpay them, and, in case of complaint, call immigration inspectors to deport them. [Deportation] allows employers not to pay migrants the money they've earned."

Ryabinina blames the situation on Uzbek authorities who have created a regime that forces their fellow countrymen to become gastarbeiters and on their Russian counterparts whose comments about the necessity of legal migration are "hypocrisy."

"The problem is rooted in the corruption of both regimes, which also support each other with enthusiasm," she said. "I am fully confident that the presence of illegal migrants is profitable for employers and law enforcement agencies which make big money on them."

A few years ago, Rakhmatjon Kuldashev, a prominent Uzbek poet and journalist, underwent an operation in Moscow to remove a tumor. Soon after, he was seized by the police who believed he was a gastarbeiter.

Kuldashev said there were 10 or 15 other people in the station seized on suspicion of being illegal migrants. "They paid 100 rubles [2.2 euros] each not to be deported and were released," he told TOL.

In the spring, the Uzbek government issued a resolution requiring labor migrants to be registered with and counted by state agencies. Furthermore, three migration deals aimed at combating illegal immigration and protecting migrants' rights were signed between Russia and Uzbekistan in July.

But many people are skeptical the laws will have any real impact. "The immediate outcomes promise little help," Ahmadov wrote in his article. "Either labor migrants will have to go through highly bureaucratic procedures of acquiring a permit to work abroad, or they will be fined for their labor activity abroad as administrative offenders."

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