© CABAR - Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting
Please make active links to the source, when using materials from this website

Experiences of Labor Migrants in Kazakhstan During COVID-19: Leave or Stay?

In this economic instability faced both by public and by the government, there is one group left behind all possible parachutes and safety opportunities. This group is ethnic migrants.

Follow us on LinkedIn 

When the World Health Organization finally labeled the coronavirus as the world pandemic, the authorities in Kazakhstan started immediately to implement serious measures starting with closure of schools to a public ban of massive gatherings and celebrations. On 13th March, the minister of health affairs, Mr. Yelzhan Birtanov, announced the first cases of the COVID-19 detections in the country. This news pushed people to understand the government measures and to follow restrictions. Later March the government restrictions started to toughen as the number of COVID-19 detections increased all across the country. Such measures included lockdowns of the cities, strict self-isolation and social distancing as well as closure of the small and medium businesses.

With introduction of these serious restrictive measures, the Kazakh government attempted to provide a safe «parachute» for the people and business owners. As it was noted, such a safe parachute includes an unemployment benefits in the amount of $100.42 per month, no tax liabilities for up to 6 months and preferential loans. According to various experts, these state parachutes cannot save the country from severe economic losses that range from $233 million to $2.3 billion. 

In this economic instability faced both by public and by the government, there is one group left behind all possible parachutes and safety opportunities. This group is ethnic migrants. Up to date Kazakhstan is a home for more than 3.5 million migrants where more than a half crossed the border illegally. While in the last few years, the inflow of illegal migrants has been increasing, the small and medium businesses literally enjoyed the most out of it in terms of cheap labor force. However, today as the businesses shutter, the vast number of illegal migrants are left with high level of economic insecurity and moral uncertainty.

In order to understand the real situation with ethnic migrants, I organized interviews with 10 migrants working in the Karaganda Oblast in the construction who were stuck here because of the lockdown. These 10 migrants are citizens of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan who have been working in Kazakhstan since 2015 in the different businesses including construction and household cleaning. Before the spread of the coronavirus on average, they earned around $100-$200 per month in the construction and were able to send remittances to their family.

However, with introduction of lockdown migrants were left without regular compensation and cannot also demand the government unemployment benefit ($100.42) because they do not hold official residence permit. At this point to survive illegal migrants have to spend their savings instead of sending remittances to their family. While they admit that savings are not long-term solution to feed and to live, they look forward to a peaceful time when they can return to their work in construction: «My roommates and I believe that towards the end of lockdown situation becomes better and we will be invited back to the construction field».

Access to healthcare?

With the closure of the construction services in the region, the illegal migrants were the first victims who sent to unpaid downtime by the employer. «My boss told me that migrants (Kyrgyz and Tajiks) need to be sent to downtime because he cannot sacrifice Kazakh or Russian workers. He gave me and my comrade around $100 each for our overall work in March and said that he contacts us when the situations becomes more stable». Nowadays a group of migrants permanently residing in the plastic boxes nearby abandoned areas in Karaganda oblast admits that they should have officially registered in order to secure their life and health because in the case if someone is infected with the COVID-19 now there are insignificant chances that they can search help from local doctors.

Moreover, the situation may escalate when the virus spreads across all the illegals who reside in nearby areas and communicate on a daily basis. «Honestly to be safe we also follow all the rules such as washing our hands, using sanitizing liquids and social distancing. But if some of my peers or I get the infection we will have a big trouble. Why? Because doctors will not serve us without any official IDs or residence permits». Migrants believe that if something gets worse and someone is positive with the COVID-19 they will have to contact bosses from the construction and look for their help.

Some of the migrants believe that even though they would have official documents, doctors are not always willing to treat them equally. One migrant thought back to a recent situation his peers had in Karaganda oblast «I have a friend of mine who officially registered and has a residence permit to work and live in Kazakhstan. In the mid-March, he called the ambulance to visit him because he felt weak and had a fever. When doctors arrived and saw that he is Tajik with a lush beard and brown skin, the doctor woman asked his ID to confirm that she can treat him. Only after this doctor woman determined that it is «officially allowed» to treat him, she started to ask questions and lead a friendly dialogue». However, from another side during this lockdown illegals are afraid to go for a medical checkup because the level of security verifications has significantly strengthened and there is a bigger chance of being caught without any legal documents by the police. In other words, if you as a migrant do not hold official status such as residence permit, you cannot demand the state medical assistance.

Morality of the Kazakh bosses: a myth or reality?

They admit that the employers arranged their living areas and helped them to find a shelter for the period of lockdowns in Karaganda oblast «We have our acquaintances in Shymkent or Taraz. These people are left on the street without any support from their bosses. My comrades and I are quite lucky because we have a place to sleep and feel secure more or less». Moreover, there are employers who weekly send them basic food and beverages to support them «Our boss is a good Kazakh man. He understands that he will need us and tries to please us with good food and some drinks», told one of the migrants residing in the box.

While some illegals can be treated well from a moral perspective, there is plenty of ethnic minorities residing in the country without good treatment and respect «When I used to work in the construction, my Kazakh colleagues have been always treated better. Kazakhs are paid more and have more privileges over me and other Tajiks. For example, if I am late, I can get punishes. But if Olzhas is late, no one really cares». During the outbreak of the coronavirus illegals fall into two groups: those with moral bosses who try to support them and those with careless bosses who are not eager to continue any kind of relations with their ex-employees.

What are possible consequences of current situation with illegals?

While there are business owners who tried to assist illegals from the moral view there exist hundreds of illegals left without any support in terms of shelter and basic food. This pool of people who have become the real target of poverty and uncertainty has all chances to become a real threat for the security in the society. One of the interviewees in his speech made a joke about the fact that if people lack basic needs, they can go and start thievery «You know when you’re hungry you do not really focus on morality or norms. What you focus heavily is about feeding your body with enough water and food to survive and sustain your life. I think it is obvious thing but if I continue to starve and to be always in stress I will go and steal food. And I am sure that I am not the only one who thinks this way». After this statement, an interviewee added that he believes it is not going to happen to him since he is supported by the previous employer and has all the necessities to lead a normal life during the lockdown.

Taking into consideration possible risk of increasing number of thefts in the regions there exist another possible effect of the current lockdown. As lockdown continues and businesses face significant losses there are limited opportunities for the migrants in terms of their opportunity to get work and earn money. According the statements of the illegal migrants it is likely that there will be an outflow of the migrants once the borders are open. «We will try to leave the country safely when the local authorities will open the borders because it is already clear now that after lockdowns we will have hard times finding new jobs. Therefore, we will try to leave as soon as everything is stable and reach our families». During the lockdown, migrants experience hard times not only to feed themselves but also to send remittances to their family members in the left country. In their opinion, it is safer for their families if there is a man in house «You know that everything is not that bad only in Kazakhstan. In Uzbekistan, for example, the situation is much worse. My wife and parents live in a very unsafe place where the crime rate increases as people have economic problems. Therefore, as a man I need to protect my household and be with my family».  

Our thinks for the future

When the coronavirus came to Kazakhstan, the government started to arrange policies that would significantly support all citizens to sustain their financial and health status. However, in the country there are left one minority group, illegal migrants, who are suffering severe conditions to survive the lockdown and its consequences. According to the interviewees made with a group of illegal migrants, living in the territory of Karaganda Oblast it is clear that illegals are now attempting to sustain their household with a minimum level of food and shelter.

However, despite the fact that the lockdown is lessened and constructions are allowed to re-start their work, there is a likelihood that these people can «cross» the red line and become a cause of the socio-political discrepancies in Kazakhstan. While there is a risk of rising number of thefts in the country, there is also a great probability that as lockdown finishes in all regions of Kazakhstan and there will be a free movement across regions, we will experience a great outflow of illegal migrants. At this point interviewed 10 illegal migrants are still stuck in their shelter and do not get paid. They are awaiting for the borders to be open within Kazakhstan in order either to return to their homes or to find alternative jobs within the territory. As one of those interviewees told, «It is only a matter of time».

As it was noted earlier, majority of illegals are occupied in the construction sector. Therefore, the vast outflow of illegals from the construction business in Kazakhstan could potentially lead to a shortage in the number of cheap labor force. According to the results of the interview with illegal migrants, the average payment per month construction lays between $100 and $200 while the average payment for legal workers is more than $400. Therefore, even if we expect at least outflow of 100 000 illegal migrants, it can be predicted that the construction sector may lose up to $20 000 000 due to lack of cheap labor force.

To understand the effects of outflow of migrants will take a further time. At this point for the government it is essential to control the spread of this new disease among illegals in order to protect other citizens because illegals are not only constructors but they also get to clean the streets and be in a direct contact with hundreds of people daily. To have a real control over the situation the government could potentially allow illegals to turn for local medical checkups and not to be afraid of being arrested and deterred. Nevertheless, what is clear now is that at the societal level it is important to see and feel the real threats of the coronavirus. The real threats do not only end up with the health quality of the people but it also touches security and well-being. Therefore, the government should grab not only what lays on the top of the «cake» but rather go deep and see the inside ingredients that are now deteriorating.

The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or donor.

Cover photo: Alexander Nememov/AFP

Spelling error report
The following text will be sent to our editors: