Lines of mostly men ranging in age from their twenties to their forties filed into the main auditorium at a school in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, anxiously clutching their passports and documents.
The group of a hundred or so were among the 6,800 applicants invited earlier this year to attend interviews as part of the selection process for jobs as seasonal farm laborers in the United Kingdom.
With ever more migrants returning home to Kyrgyzstan to escape potential military recruitment and economic uncertainty in Russia, applying to work as a seasonal farm laborer in the UK is becoming a popular alternative.
In March 2022, shortly after the start to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan signed its first agreement with one of the licensed operators in charge of recruiting temporary workers for the UK’s Seasonal Workers Pilot Scheme. Around 1,000 Kyrgyz nationals participated in the program in the first year. With the labor shortages precipitated by Brexit still biting, the quota for this year has been increased significantly.
“We’ve received over 8,000 applications so far, of which 5,400 are already cleared for departure. The quota could be increased in the coming months, it all depends on how good the harvest will be in the UK,” said Almaz Alybayev, director of the Overseas Employment Center at the Kyrgyz Labor, Social Welfare and Migration Ministry.
Inside the Bishkek’s Vocational School No. 18, applicants were evaluated on their knowledge of Russian as that remains the lingua franca on many UK farms in which Ukrainians, Latvians and Lithuanians often work as supervisors. Applicants were then tested for color blindness and hand-to-eye coordination by being made to pick up and sort hand-sized bean bags in front of a tester with a stopwatch.
“I did it in just 16 seconds” boasted Khikmatullo Tashbayev, a 23-year-old from the city of Kara-Balta. Tashbayev said he was hoping to make it out to the UK for his second stint.
Like most of the applicants, Tashbayev had previously worked in Russia, first as a loader at a warehouse in Moscow and then as a chef at a Turkish restaurant in Krasnodar. Those jobs earned him around $800 a month. In September 2021, he returned home to help his parents run the family beet farm.
“Russia was alright, but I can make at least twice as much in the UK,” he said.
In his first six-month stretch in the UK in 2022, Tashbayev was assigned to Newland Farms in Kent, picking pears, apples and berries. During apple-picking season, Tashbayev had to fulfill a daily quota of 10 crates of apples. Each crate weighed 300 kilos. As the eldest of five children, it was his duty to send most of his earnings, the equivalent of around $1,900-2,400, back home to support his parents and siblings.
While he has heard stories of poor working conditions elsewhere in the UK, he felt fortunate to have ended up at a small farm with an approachable employer.
“The owner of the farm even invited us to his daughter's wedding. There was champagne, catering, the whole shebang. We ate, danced and had a great time. I was really touched that he bothered to send us all personalized invitations” he said.
Janbolotbek Tologonov, a 33-year-old father of four from Tokmok, was also poised for a second season at Southern England Farms in Cornwall.
“I have a degree in engineering, worked for nine years for the national electric grid, but the pay was just too low” Tologonov complained.
Given his technical expertise and working knowledge of English, he was disappointed to be working in the fields as a vegetable picker. His supervisor, a Bashkir woman from Russia living in the UK, saw his potential and moved him to the farm’s quality-control department.
“I was the only Central Asian who worked as a quality-control inspector, but I was still paid the same as my crew out in the field,” Tologonov said. “At the same time, it was a great learning experience, and I didn’t have to brave the elements outside.”
During one of his shifts in the packhouse, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a surprise visit to Southern England Farms.
“He came up to me and asked me where I was from. I said ‘Kyrgyzstan, in Central Asia.’ He was the first British person I met who knew where that was,” Tologonov recalled.
Back in 2019, Tologonov and his wife worked in Moscow for six months. They left because of the low pay and unpleasant working conditions.
“At the first bakery I worked in, my Russian boss wouldn’t allow me to pray, even during my break. In the UK, my faith was never an issue, they had respect for my culture,” he said.
This summer he is returning to Cornwall with his wife, leaving their four children in the care of his sister.
“I tell myself: ‘I’ll do this for another season.’ The two of us can earn double what I made last year, but shuttling between Kyrgyzstan and the UK is too physically and emotionally exhausting in the long term,” he said.
Tologonov thinks about investing some of his earnings into developing modern agriculture at home, but he remains wary of doing business in Kyrgyzstan.
“For now, migration remains the only viable option for us Kyrgyz.”