As many as one out of every nine Uzbeks is believed to be a labor migrant, spending at least part of the year outside Uzbekistan, working mostly in menial jobs for meager wages. In the coming weeks, hundreds of thousands of Uzbeks are expected to make their way across the border to Kazakhstan, where they will help harvest a variety of crops.
Uzbek labor migration is being fueled by a combination of economic stagnation at home and steady demographic growth. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. According to the Uzbek State Committee for Statistics, the country's population stands at just over 26 million, and is growing by about 300,000 per year. Job creation is clearly not keeping pace, thus experts believe the pressure on Uzbeks to seek employment opportunities abroad will continue to grow for the foreseeable future.
According to unofficial data, Uzbek migrant laborers remit about $500 million home to their relatives. Pinpointing the number of Uzbeks working abroad is hampered by a lack of reliable governmental data. Most Uzbek labor migrants are believed to lack proper work authorization, and thus are not recorded in official statistics.
Uzbekistan's Ministry of Labor has fixed the number of labor migrants at 700,000. But independent experts believe the actual number is many times higher than the official estimate. Russia has traditionally been a magnate for illegal migrants from across Central Asia. According to the Russian RIA Novtosti news agency, there are roughly 1.5 million illegal migrants in the Moscow Region alone, and Uzbeks are thought to comprise about 25 percent of that total.
In recent years, Kazakhstan has become an increasingly attractive destination for Uzbek laborers, due in part to the relatively high wages paid and the geographic proximity. Migrant farmers in Kazakhstan can earn between $150-300 per month, far more than the roughly $30 per month that unskilled workers can expect to earn in Uzbekistan.
A report in July published by the Kazinform news agency, estimated that up to 1 million Uzbeks were working in Kazakhstan, adding that only a small portion of Uzbeks migrant laborers entered Kazakhstan legally. Those lacking proper documentation are "vulnerable to the influence of criminal elements," the report stated.
During a state visit to Kazakhstan that concluded September 4, Uzbek President Islam Karimov and his Kazakhstani counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev signed seven agreements aimed at expanding bilateral economic relations. But there was no indication that Karimov raised the labor migration issue with Nazarbayev during their talks.
Illegal migrants say they routinely are subject to harassment and extortion. One of the most highly publicized instances of abuse involving Uzbeks occurred during the summer of 2004, when a skinhead arson attack left two migrant laborers dead. For many Uzbeks, such as Anvar, a laborer from Samarkand who declined to give his last name, the migrant laborer experience is one that they would prefer to forget. Anvar recently worked as a laborer in Russia's Voronezh Province. His difficulties there began when he was severely beaten by a group of local thugs. Unable to continue working, Anvar's employer summarily fired him and refused to pay him $500 that he contends he was owed. He ended up returning to Uzbekistan penniless.
Hamid Rahmonov, another Samarkand native, has encountered better luck working abroad. Two years ago, he said, he found work in the Russian city of Tomsk as a packer at a rubber footwear factory. Working two shifts, he said he could earn upwards of $300 per month, over $200 of which he would send back to Uzbekistan. Even so, Rahmonov said he lived in constant fear of police shakedowns and skinhead attacks. "We have no rights," Rahmonov said. "Uzbekistan does not protect us. It all depends on the attitude of local bosses and militia."Editor's Note: Yunus Khalikov is the pseudonym of a freelance journalist based in Uzbekistan.