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Uzbekistan Offers Assistance To Its Migrant Workers, Only A Fraction Takes It

«Adoption of a number of legal documents facilitating migrant workers indicates that the government of Uzbekistan is indeed changing its attitudes and approaches. However, the magnitude and the enormity of the problems related to migrant workers abroad, especially in Russia, still remains staggering, while many problems faced by migrant workers are completely omitted from the bilateral talks between the governments of Uzbekistan and Russia», – Farhod Mirzabayev, an independent analyst from Tashkent, participant of CABAR.asia School of Analytics.

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A brief overview of the article:

  • Adoption of three legal documents which are expected to help ease the difficulties of the Uzbek migrant workers demonstrate the changes in the government’s attitude and approaches;
  • Nevertheless, the programs of organized recruitment offered to migrant workers by the External Migration Agency of Uzbekistan have not become popular due to their unreliability and significant costs involved for the participants.
  • The main problems faced by the migrant workers who are already in Russia such as costly work permits and cumbersome registration processes are still omitted from the bilateral talks between the governments of Uzbekistan and Russia
  • The intergovernmental agreement on organized recruitment and the presidential decree on safe transportation of migrant workers to Russia are mostly helpful to those who are planning to travel to Russia, while more than 2 million Uzbek citizens who are already in Russia are yet to feel the benefits of Uzbek government’s efforts.
  • It is still too early to judge whether these government efforts will be able to make the desired positive impact on the daily lives of more than 2, 5 million Uzbek migrant workers abroad.

The crisis of state administration in Uzbekistan in the last decade of late President Islam Karimov’s rule was evident in many areas, but the shameful treatment of its own migrant workers and outright refusal to extend any assistance to them demonstrated that the regime was also losing its “human face”. The tragic incident in Aktobe, Kazakhstan on 18th January 2018 involving a crumbling Kazakh-owned Russia-bound bus full of Uzbek migrant workers was a painful wake-up call for the current Uzbekistan authorities led by President Shavkat Mirziyoev. Even though Uzbek authorities have taken a number of measures to help their migrant workers abroad, especially in Russia, the magnitude of the problems indicate that there is still a long way to go.

In the last two and half years, three important legal documents were adopted in Uzbekistan which are expected to help regulate and ease the difficulties of the Uzbek migrant workers planning to travel abroad (mainly to Russia) for work. These include:

  • An “Intergovernmental Agreement between the Governments of Uzbekistan and Russia on organized recruitment and attraction of the citizens of Uzbekistan for temporary employment in the territory of Russian Federation” signed on 7th April 2017 (came into force from 21st December 2017) during the state visit of the President of Uzbekistan to Russia , and
  • Presidential Decree “On the Measures for Safe Transportation of the Citizens of Uzbekistan who are Travelling Abroad for Temporary Employment” signed on 5th March 2018 and came into force from 1st April 2018.
  • Presidential Decree “On Additional Measures to Further Improve the System of External Labor Migration of the Republic of Uzbekistan” signed on 5th July 2018 and came into force from 1st September 2018.

These three important documents demonstrate that the government’s attitude and approaches toward its migrant workers is changing in a positive way with officials showing concern for the various difficulties encountered by the Uzbek migrant workers, which is a significant change from the previous times when migrant workers were considered as “lazy and disgraceful citizens with no honor” and could not hope for any compassion from authorities.

What has changed?

According to the Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations of Uzbekistan in 2017 fewer than 1,000 Uzbek citizens were sent for temporary employment in Russia through the arrangements put in place based on the Intergovernmental Agreement on organized recruitment. In 2018 the target was to increase this number to 50, 000 people, whether this target was achieved remains unclear.

Occasional complaints from migrant workers who participated in employment programs organized by the External Migration Agency of Uzbekistan shed some light on why such programs failed to become popular among migrant workers. According to these complaints, in most of the cases the Agency was not able to ensure the protection of migrant workers’ rights once they arrived in Russia, nor did Russian employers abide by the contractual terms and conditions promised by the External Migration Agency of Uzbekistan.

The frequency of such negative incidents and the fact that migrant workers have to pay for the services of the External Migration Agency make these “organized recruitment programs” less attractive and less reliable in the eyes of the migrant workers.

Perhaps to compensate for this lack of success, the government allowed for private recruitment agencies to operate, more than 80 private recruiting agencies have already received licenses since 1st September 2018. Previously, recruitment of Uzbek citizens for works abroad was the monopoly of the External Migration Agency.

The first labor migrants sent to Poland through the Ministry of Labor of Uzbekistan in June 2018. Photo: migration.uz

On the positive side, Russian migration authorities are currently planning to open special multifunctional Migration Centers in Uzbekistan that will allow Uzbek migrant workers to sit Russian language and other exams, to receive work permits and to complete other relevant paperwork in Uzbekistan before travelling to Russia which could create additional conveniences. This plan was reconfirmed recently during Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev’s visit to Uzbekistan to attend a Joint Commission Meeting in Urgench.

The tragic incident with a bus transporting Uzbek migrant workers in Aktobe, Kazakhstan on 18th January 2018, which killed 52 citizens of Uzbekistan, was another turning point for government. After the incident President Shavkat Mirziyoyev took the blame for the tragedy and admitted that those “people had to travel to Russia in search of jobs only because the government did not create employment and facilities for them at home”.

The incident in Aktobe was the main trigger for President to sign the Degree on “Measures for Safe Transportation of Uzbekistan Citizens Travelling for Work to Russia and Kazakhstan”. According to this decree, those Uzbek migrant workers who have registered with the External Migration Agency are entitled for:

  • 20% discounts for Russia and Kazakhstan bound railway and air tickets;
  • Once a year give-away financial assistance of 300,000 UZS ($35) for the purchase of railway or air tickets and opening a “VISA Migrant” bank card with minimum bank commission;
  • Life insurances during the travel from Uzbekistan to the final destinations in Russia and Kazakhstan.

According to Sherzod Quitbiev, Minister of Employment and Labor Relations of Uzbekistan, since 1st April 2018 around 150,000 Uzbek citizens purchased discount railway and air tickets using the facilities offered by the External Migration Agency.

Another important development was the creation from 1st September 2018 of a special “Fund to support and protect the rights and interests of citizens engaged in labor activities abroad”. This Fund is tasked to provide comprehensive legal, social, financial, medical and other necessary assistance to Uzbek migrant workers in need in Russia and Kazakhstan, provided they are registered with the External Migration Agency which can done even online. Moreover, the Fund will also run special migrant training, adaptation and testing centers in Uzbekistan for ensuring the professional competence of the migrant workers. So far, this Fund helped bring back to Uzbekistan several hundred Uzbekistan citizens left in difficult situations and without means in Russia.

What is still missing?

Despite these positive changes, however, one cannot see yet significant improvements, as far as various difficulties are concerned, for those migrant workers who have long arrived and have been working in Russia for quite some time.

The intergovernmental agreement on organized recruitment and the presidential decree on safe transportation of migrant workers to Russia are mostly helpful to those who are planning to travel to Russia, while more than 2 million Uzbek citizens who are already in Russia are yet to feel the benefits of Uzbek government’s efforts.

For the majority of Uzbek migrant workers in Russia, the main problems are the costly work permits (патенты) and cumbersome registration procedures required by the Russian authorities. There are no indications yet that these two problems faced by those who are already in Russia are being raised by Uzbek officials during their meetings with their Russian counterparts. Facilitation of these two requirements could significantly increase the amount of remittances Uzbek migrant workers send back home.

Russian authorities have long made it clear that as far as work permits are concerned, whose cost can vary from one region to another, they can only be abolished if Uzbekistan joins the Eurasian Union (EAU). For instance, the citizens of Kyrgyzstan, an EAU member country, do not have to buy costly work permits and have some other significant privileges which are not extended to non-EAU countries.

Moreover, unlike the governments of neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, another two countries that send great numbers of migrant workers to Russia, Uzbek authorities have not made any requests to Russian authorities to remove from the Russian Federal Migration Authority’s so-called blacklist Uzbek citizens who have been banned from entry to Russia due to various violations of Russian migration rules. This matter has always been part of the high-level bilateral talks between Russian and Kyrgyz or Tajik officials respectively.

What is more, various legal companies and Uzbek run NGOs based in Russia that specialize in helping migrant workers complain that official Uzbek authorities still do not want to have close cooperation with them even though they are willing to share their valuable experience.

New Directions for Migrant Workers

Besides extending its assistance to migrant workers in Russia, the Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations of Uzbekistan has also been trying to secure protection of labor rights and interests for its citizens in other places popular among Uzbek migrant workers. For instance, during the state visit of the new President of Kazakhstan Kasym Joomart Tokaev to Uzbekistan on 14-15 April 2019, the two sides signed a bilateral agreement on the protection of labor rights of the citizens of Kazakhstan working in Uzbekistan and the citizens of Uzbekistan working in Kazakhstan.

Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations of Uzbekistan has also been in talks and have reached agreements with the government of South Korea to increase the quota for Uzbek migrant workers from 3,100 to 3,200 per year, in total there are over 17,000 Uzbek migrant workers in South Korea. Negotiations are also underway with the governments of Japan, Turkey, Poland, Oman and the United Arab Emirates to allocate quotas for Uzbekistan workers.

Nonetheless, all these other destinations pale in importance both in terms of numbers and in the amounts of remittances compared to Russia which will most probably remain the main recipient of Uzbek migrant workers in the foreseeable future. What is more, recruitment programs for more lucrative destinations such as South Korea have been embroiled in various corruption schemes and remain off-limits for many aspirants.

Conclusions

Adoption of a number of legal documents facilitating migrant workers indicates that the government of Uzbekistan is indeed changing its attitudes and approaches. However, the magnitude and the enormity of the problems related to migrant workers abroad, especially in Russia, still remains staggering, while many problems faced by migrant workers are completely omitted from the bilateral talks between the governments of Uzbekistan and Russia.

Many of the arrangements and programs of organized recruitment offered to migrant workers by the External Migration Agency have not become popular due to their unreliability and significant costs involved for the participants.

Despite these shortcomings, Uzbekistan government’s efforts to ensure safe transportation of its citizens to their destinations in Russia and Kazakhstan by offering discounts for railway and air tickets are commendable and deserve credit. Moreover, the establishment of a special Fund to support migrant workers abroad has been another important milestone.

It is still too early to judge whether these government efforts will be able to make the desired positive impact on the daily lives of more than 2, 5 million Uzbek migrant workers abroad. Most of these new arrangements and instruments for regulating the migration flows and helping the migrant workers have not been tested by time and their efficiency is still questioned by some migration experts.

Recommendations:

  1. While giving due credit to government’s new policies and initiatives aimed at helping the migrant workers, it is necessary to put in place monitoring tools to ensure that all the mechanisms of assistance to migrant workers are functioning efficiently without any systematic failures.
  2. To ensure the efficient work of the External Migration Agency, it is important to increase the personal responsibility of the senior officials including the Minister of Employment and Labor Relations for any shortcomings and negative incidents. Any negative incidents in the work of the Agency should be thoroughly studied and necessary lessons learned so that these incidents don’t keep repeating from time to time.
  3. To ensure maximum possible coverage of the assistance programs to the migrant workers it is necessary to open permanent offices of the External Migration Agency in all major cities of Russia.
  4. To ensure effective work, the External Migration Agency should closely cooperate with the various NGOs and legal companies helping Uzbek migrant workers abroad, especially in Russia.
  5. It is necessary to simplify the application procedure for receiving assistance from the External Migration Agency’s representative offices in Russia to the maximum extent and these offices should operate 24/7.
  6. For the success of government’s efforts it is necessary to engage to the fullest possible extent all the counterpart agencies of the Russian Federation and establish good working relations with them through frequent exchanges of visits and other joint activities.
  7. All the bilateral plans between Uzbekistan and Russia to open so-called Multifunctional Migration Centers in Uzbekistan and creating other conveniences for the migrant workers need to be fast-tracked.
  8. It is important for the government of Uzbekistan to explain to its population that without the good command of Russian language and required skills, the potential migrant workers should put off their plans to travel to Russia until they acquire all necessary skills. There is nothing good in going to a foreign land and exposing oneself to various risks without due preparation.

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.

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