On a main thoroughfare in central Bishkek stands a rare type of building in Kyrgyzstan these days: a busy factory. Women hunched over long tables can be seen from the street working late into the evening in boxy rooms under the greenish glow of florescent lights.
During the Soviet era, the factory produced men’s suits for sale in communist Eastern Europe. Today, the five-story building is home to some 80 independent workshops making clothes, mostly for Russian women. No one knows for sure, but various studies estimate that Kyrgyzstan’s apparel industry employs between 150,000 and 300,000 workers – about 7 to 14 percent of the country’s working population. It’s quickly growing, too. But is it sustainable? And will shifting customs alliances spell its demise?
Vladimir Foton rents two workspaces and employs 15 women in the building on Jibek Jolu Avenue, still referred to as the VLKSM Factory (named for the Komsomol, or the Communist youth organization). Speaking over the humming sewing machines, he explains that, with the onset of autumn, his operation switches over to making quilted polyester coats.
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David Trilling is EurasiaNet's Central Asia editor.