Energy-rich Kazakhstan has been a magnet for Central Asian migrant workers for much of the last decade. Many make a decent living, but for some the dream turns into a nightmare of shakedowns by police, stolen wages, poor conditions and, in the worst cases, modern-day slavery.
An international rights advocacy group is now calling on Astana to do more to protect the rights of migrant workers -- both "regulars" who are legally employed and "irregulars" who operate outside the law.
The Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) released a report November 30 stemming from a fact-finding mission to Kazakhstan and neighboring Kyrgyzstan, which supplies many migrant workers to Kazakhstan's labor market.
"FIDH documented serious violations with migrant workers' rights, particularly those in an irregular situation working in the agriculture and construction industries, including very poor working conditions; long working hours; no rest days; confiscation of passports; non-payment of salaries; and even 'sale' [of a worker] from one employer to another," Katherine Booth, FIDH Migrants' Rights Desk director, told a news conference in Almaty on November 30. The fact-finding mission occurred during the summer.
The report itself, titled Kazakhstan/Kyrgyzstan: Exploitation of Migrant Workers, Protection Denied to Asylum Seekers and Refugees, documents a variety of grievances, including unpaid labor, "debt bondage," the use of physical violence and improper confinement, the use of child labor and generally poor living conditions.
It also documents some serious cases of abuse. In one case exposed earlier this year, an irregular Uzbek labor migrant was bought and sold on from employer to employer until he no longer knew his own location, or who was in possession of his passport. When his last employer was due to pay him, instead he reported the migrant to the police. The man was only found after his family in Uzbekistan alerted a Kazakh NGO, which located the migrant in a detention center in Shymkent in southern Kazakhstan and got him released.
In another case, which resulted in a complaint being sent to the UN special rapporteur on human trafficking, a missing Uzbek labor migrant called Bekzod Ikramov was found to have been sold to a police chief in Shymkent. In a third, over 20 Uzbek citizens forced to work against their will in Almaty were freed in a police operation in August.
These cases highlight the vulnerabilities of migrant workers. They are often recruited by intermediaries who confiscate their passports, leaving them unable to return home, and who take a significant cut of their salaries. A typical middleman might run a group of some 30 workers, taking around $20 out of each individual's salary every month, according to one anonymous Uzbek migrant worker quoted in the FIDH report. The sum may not sound great, but most irregular migrants work in unskilled jobs for low wages and may have a further fee deducted for food and accommodation. The intermediary may also fleece the unsuspecting migrant, the report found.
Migrants were found often to live in unsanitary conditions. During Kazakhstan's economic boom, construction sites in prospering cities such as Astana and Almaty swarmed with migrant workers from neighboring countries building luxury apartments, while the laborers themselves live on site in shipping containers, freezing in winter and boiling in summer. Some of those construction projects have now stalled due to the financial crisis, leaving workers suddenly out of work, unpaid and unable to get home.
Migrants doing agricultural work or picking cotton fare little better. During a visit in fall 2008 to the cotton fields in southern Kazakhstan, Uzbek migrant workers showed a EurasiaNet reporter the tiny rooms they crammed into in groups to sleep and eat.
Getting their hard earned money home is another problem. Migrants, particularly those who have crossed borders illegally or over-stayed their visas, are vulnerable to shakedowns by police and border guards. The FIDH report quoted Aygul Ryskulova, the head of Kyrgyzstan's State Committee on Migration and Employment, as describing trains passing through Kazakhstan from Kyrgyzstan as "like a milk cow" for Kazakhstan's law-enforcement officials.
Migrant workers employed legally are less vulnerable than irregulars but they still face problems, including lack of access to health and education and unequal pay compared to Kazakh citizens, the FIDH found.
A rule that links work permits to a particular employer is a source of difficulty for some regular labor migrants, Booth said during the news conference: "The migrants who are lucky enough to get authorization to work legally find themselves in a situation where they can't change their jobs -- they can't change their employer if they're exploited by their employer, if they suffer poor working conditions." Kazakhstan is currently in the process of adopting a new migration law, which has been passed by parliament and awaits the approval of the president. But FIDH is "very disappointed that this [rule] doesn't seem to be covered in the current law that's under discussion," she added.
FIDH representatives are urging Astana to ratify the UN International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families and two International Labor Organization conventions on migration.
The report made a host of other recommendations, calling on the authorities to issue work permits directly to migrants and advocating for the creation of mechanisms to investigate and prosecute employers and intermediaries who violate migrants' rights. It also called for the introduction of measures to combat forced labor and human trafficking; for training law-enforcement officials in migrants' rights; for guaranteeing equal pay for regular migrants; and for conducting publicity campaigns to inform workers of their rights.
With Astana set to assume an important international role next year, the FIDH hopes 2010 could mark a turning point in Kazakhstan's treatment of migrants. "In January of next year Kazakhstan is taking the chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and this is a key opportunity for Kazakhstan to show the international community its willingness to conform to international obligations," Booth concluded.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.