Pay inequality between local and foreign workers has long been a hot-button issue in Kazakhstan, so the government is trying to tackle the question, although with less than overwhelming success so far.
Following a government review of investment projects, 361 foreign workers have had their wages docked to match those of local hires in equivalent positions. In a parallel move, the Labor and Social Protection Ministry said on January 14 that the quota for foreigners eligible for work permits has been slashed by 40 percent for this year, down to less than 30,000.
As many online commentators have pointed out, none of this necessarily means Kazakh workers will be in line for pay rises.
The issue of pay and labor conditions is most fraught in western Kazakhstan, where regular folk have seen little benefit from their region’s oil riches. The perception that locals are often getting passed over for jobs in the energy industry only compounds the sense of injury.
In June, a massive brawl broke out at an oilfield near the western city of Atyrau in which large mobs of Kazakh men attacked dozens of their colleagues from countries like Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. The unrest had ostensibly been triggered by a Libyan on-site manager posting an image to social media showing himself in what he intended to be an irreverent but sexually provocative pose with a Kazakh female colleague.
There was little doubt, however, that festering resentment about pay and working conditions underlay the violence.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev had by chance visited Atyrau some weeks earlier and had addressed the pay gap. Part of the problem, he said at the time, was that the local workforce sometimes lacks the experience required to fill even low-skilled positions.
In this case, he suggested, they should be trained before being hired.
The commitment to vocational training looks underwhelming, however.
A report from 2018 by news website Informburo showed that the most popular job types resulting from state-funded training programs in 2017 were in the service sector and agriculture. Among industrial callings, the most popular training program was for welding, which led to fewer than 3,000 trainees gaining employment that year.
Tokayev’s predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who left office last year, typically felt more confident with the stick than the carrot when addressing labor relations.
A police crackdown on striking oil workers in the western oil town of Zhanaozen in late 2011 left more than a dozen dead. What followed was a furthering tightening of the already tough rules on how workers could organize and unionize.
In 2017, authorities shuttered the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan and jailed two prominent union leaders who protested against the decision. After more than a year in jail, the pair were released.
That has left the state in the curious position of negotiating on behalf of workers.
In November, Tokayev’s press service reported that he had issued instructions to China National Petroleum Company chairman Wang Yilin to ensure that his company provided more equal salaries to Kazakh and foreign workers.
Wang, whose group boasted revenues in 2018 of nearly $400 billion is said to have “expressed understanding,” according to Tokayev’s office.
That choice of target was likely not casual. It is generally perceived that Chinese companies provide poor working climates, that they prefer to hire their own and that they routinely flout environmental regulations.
Such negative sentiments are grist to the mill of anti-government activists. Online chatter last year about supposed plans to relocate 50 aging Chinese industrial concerns to Kazakhstan were enough to spark a wave of impromptu rallies, including in Zhanaozen, where even the vaguest specter of potential unrest reliably spooks officials.
Authorities scrambled to counter that message, insisting that it was based on false information and intended to sow trouble. The Kazakh people will instead stand to benefit from “joint Kazakh-Chinese projects,” officials insisted. That distinction is important in that it emphasizes that Kazakhstan retains a deciding role in Chinese investments.
Chris Rickleton is a journalist based in Almaty.