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How Are Patterns of Labor Migration From Uzbekistan Changing?

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How Are Patterns of Labor Migration From Uzbekistan Changing?

Following the Crocus City Hall attack and a subsequent wave of xenophobia and discrimination toward migrants in Russia, Tashkent has introduced additional measures to support its labor migrants abroad and at home. 

How Are Patterns of Labor Migration From Uzbekistan Changing?
Credit: Depositphotos

Uzbekistan’s economy is significantly reliant on labor migration, given its large population and tight domestic labor market. Every year, around 650,000 Uzbeks graduate from general secondary or secondary special, vocational institutions. Only about a quarter of them continue their studies at universities, while others enter the workforce. The Uzbek economy cannot support this many new employees every year. Reportedly, only about 300,000 new jobs are created annually. The official poverty rate hovers at around 11 percent while the official unemployment rate is 6.8 percent

Unsurprisingly, many seek jobs abroad, especially those from rural areas. The remittances sent by migrants support their family, alleviating the poverty rate nationwide. In 2022 alone, labor migrants sent $13.5 billion to Uzbekistan, placing the country at 15th globally in terms of receiving remittances. Remittances in 2022 were equivalent to 17 percent of the country’s GDP.

However, in recent years, the dynamics of labor migration from Uzbekistan have been changing. The total number of labor migrants, for example, declined from an average of 3-4 million annually during the early 2000s to 2-3 million a year by 2023. The exact number is hard to report due to the seasonal nature of labor migration. In the first quarter of 2022, for example, 2.3 million citizens were working abroad. 

Labor migration patterns have been impacted by both internal and external developments. Inside the country, the formal attitude toward labor migrants changed with the ruling regime in 2016.

In an infamous rant in 2013, then-President Islam Karimov was recorded calling labor migrants “lazy.” 

“Who do I call ‘lazy’ — those who go to Moscow and sweep streets and squares,” he yapped. “One gets disgusted that people from the Uzbek nation go there just to earn bread. No one is starving in Uzbekistan… [They] go there to quickly earn a lot of money, but bring shame upon us all.” 

Unlike his predecessor, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev does not characterize labor migration as shameful, instead recognizing the value it brings.

Mirziyoyev’s administration understands that people choose labor migration because of domestic shortcomings in job provision and low salaries. The government also realizes that the remittances from labor migration support the national economy. So, instead of criticizing the workers, the Mirziyoyev administration has been aiding them.

In 2018, the Agency for Foreign Labor Migration was established under the Ministry of Employment to support citizens working abroad, protect their rights and interests, and facilitate the reintegration of returning migrant workers. The 2020 presidential decree “On measures to introduce a system of safe, orderly and legal labor migration,” among others, envisioned low-interest rate loans for migrating citizens from poor backgrounds to cover travel expenses and obtain work permits abroad. It also emphasized international cooperation in foreign labor migration and improving relations with compatriot organizations abroad and Uzbek diasporas. This year alone, for example, Uzbek diplomats met with diaspora communities and labor migrants in Japan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and at least five cities in Russia, assessing the working conditions. 

Another major change is observed in the destination countries. Although Russia, Kazakhstan, and Turkey remain primary destinations for most Uzbek labor migrants, as those countries allow for visa-free travel for Uzbekistanis, many are exploring other, developed countries too. In Lithuania, for example, in early 2023, the number of Uzbek labor migrants stood at just 1,800. By March 2024, this number reached almost 10,000.

Here, Tashkent’s intervening role is notable – it has actively been holding negotiations with foreign countries, especially developed ones, and foreign companies, to get Uzbek workers employed. Uzbekistan has signed agreements with almost 300 recruiting agencies from 28 countries. In March, for instance, the Agency for Foreign Labor Migration held official negotiations with Hungary’s Worknet Kft. company to facilitate recruitment of around 100 workers.

While in the past, only 0.15 percent of citizens would opt to travel for work abroad through official channels, in 2022, this indicator stood at 8-9 percent. Over the past two years, the Agency for Foreign Labor Migration reportedly sent 70,000 citizens to developed countries to work. 

To this end, the Agency for Foreign Labor Migration runs a Xorijda Ish (Jobs Abroad) electronic platform that facilitates Uzbek migrants landing a job in foreign countries such as Belarus, the United Kingdom, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, and Russia. Currently, there are over 50,000 vacant jobs for Uzbek workers and over 2 million registered users.

One problem is that not everyone is qualified to work the jobs listed, partly because of language barriers and partly because they lack the skill-sets in demand. Tashkent has organized cheap, short language courses and vocational courses to address these issues. One can study German, English, Russian, Korean, Arabic, and other languages, paying merely a symbolic price – $10-25. The average length of language courses is 12 weeks and those are available nationwide. Vocational courses are a bit more pricey, but there are free courses too. 

Following the Crocus City Hall terrorist attack and subsequent wave of xenophobia and discrimination toward Central Asian labor migrants in Russia, Tashkent has worked to  make sure its citizens are properly supported, at home or abroad. 

On April 4, Mirziyoyev signed a decree aiming to incentivize local employers to hire returning labor migrants. Accordingly, any employer who hires a returning labor migrant from June 2024 to January 2026 will receive a 500,000 Uzbek som ($40) monthly subsidy for a year. The decree specifies a former labor migrant as an individual who has worked abroad for at least three months and has returned to their place of residence within the past 12 months, excluding those who returned before June 2023. Tashkent also plans to launch a round-the-clock call-center to assist labor migrants by September with toll-free calls from abroad. 

The decree also retains partial financial support for labor migrants from a previous presidential decree in 2021. Accordingly, those who have registered through the “Xorijda ish” online system, and who are traveling abroad through organized labor migration, will receive partial funding for obtaining a language certificate or occupational skills certificate that enables them to work abroad. Financial aid will also be presented to partially cover work visas and travel tickets. Workers who face discrimination, violence, or forced labor will be entitled to legal services. 

In order to provide better support for Uzbek labor migrants abroad, Tashkent announced that it would  designate one additional attaché position for labor migration issues at the diplomatic and consular institutions of Uzbekistan in key labor migrant destinations – the U.K., UAE, Hungary, Germany, Latvia, Poland, and Japan. 

There has been a visible shift in Uzbek migrant labor patterns, evidenced by the amount and source of remittances.  In 2023, remittances from Russia decreased by 39 percent. This was partly due to the devaluation of the Russian ruble. However, remittances from other countries reportedly increased by 15 percent. While many who go to Russia, Turkey, and Kazakhstan for low-paying, manual jobs face constant discrimination and, in general, feel unsafe, those who migrate through official channels and via official programs have better chances. Apart from manual work, many vacancies in developed countries include medical, engineering, hotel service, and other jobs, with fixed 8-hour working days and far better payment. 

Nevertheless, Russia remains a primary destination – 70-87 percent of Uzbek labor migrants go to Russia. There are still hundreds of thousands of unskilled, unemployed, or underemployed citizens for whom manual jobs in Russia or Kazakhstan are the only solution. The Legislative Chamber of the Oliy Majlis reports that most labor migrants from Uzbekistan (72 percent) have no university or college degree – 43 percent have general secondary education and another 29 percent have incomplete secondary education. 

Not everyone can afford to go through the 12-24 weeks of language and vocational training necessary to land higher-paying jobs in developed countries, but providing these opportunities is a good start from Tashkent.

But there is more Uzbekistan can do. While what Tashkent has been doing looks good in the news, and it has helped thousands, labor migration is not the solution to Uzbekistan’s economic problems. Regardless of the destination country, whether it is a developed or undeveloped country, whether it is a good paying or a low-paying job, labor migrants by default are away from their home and from their families for months, if not years. Children grow up without a parent, women stay at home without a husband, and parents grow old missing their children who are engaged in labor migration. All these crack the family institution, which the Uzbek nation holds as its highest value. 

The author thanks the TalTech Law School at Tallinn University of Technology for providing the opportunity to participate as a fellow in Caucasus and Central Asia Research Social Innovation: Development Assistance, Innovation and Societal Transformation project that allowed her to work on this piece.