Since the start of 2019, more than 2,000 migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan have joined together to protect their rights abroad through the new Migrant Workers’ Union. On October 17, more than 100 union delegates came together in the town of Isfana, Kyrgyzstan, for the union’s founding congress.
Newly elected deputy chairwoman of the Migrant Workers’ Union, Batyrova Kanykey, addresses more than 100 delegates at their founding congress. Credit: Elena Rubtsova
The congress marks a crucial step as the union establishes itself as a leading support system for migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan. Delegates cast their votes to elect union leadership and planned activities and outreach to more workers in the coming year.
Workers from across three regions of western Kyrgyzstan—Batken, Jalal-Abad and Osh—worked together to build this new organization, with support from the Solidarity Center and Insan-Leilek, a local foundation that provided assistance to migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan over the last five years. The union has also garnered support from the Germany-based Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and Caritas France.
Insan-Leilek celebrated the milestone with a video in Russian.
Protecting Workers Abroad
Migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan, and from around the world, often face discrimination, exploitation and unsafe working conditions when they arrive in their destination countries. In Russia, a common destination for Kyrgyz migrants, workers have reported working without official contracts or having their wages stolen, with few opportunities to stand up for their rights and hold their employers accountable. Kyrgyz workers also travel to Kazakhstan, Germany and elsewhere for work. Many stay year-round, while others travel back and forth each year for seasonal jobs.
“A large number of labor migrants are subjected to exploitation and violation of their rights by employers, employment agencies and other intermediaries,” says Gulnara Derbisheva, a human rights activist in Kyrgyzstan and the leader of Insan-Leilek. “They face abuse of authority by the police and other officials. In some cases, labor migrants are victims of trafficking and forced labor.”
Since 2015, the Solidarity Center and Insan-Leilek have held pre-departure trainings for working women and men who are preparing to migrate abroad, most of them to Russia. Through these trainings, thousands of migrants have learned about their rights and the protections they have under Russian labor law. Armed with this knowledge, many workers have started exercising their rights the moment they arrive at their new jobs.
Many migrants have used their knowledge of Russian labor law to negotiate higher wages and overtime pay. Others have worked with their employers to ensure they have fully signed contracts that specify their working conditions and document their ability to work in the country. Migrant women have also learned how to protect their rights, including avoiding human traffickers and reporting workplace harassment.
The Solidarity Center also provides training participants with contact information for local legal support in their destination countries. Through hotlines and free consultations, workers can seek legal help if or when they encounter issues on the job, such as wage theft and harassment.
The Solidarity Center’s pre-departure trainings have also shown migrants how they can join trade unions to further protect their rights, even when they are working abroad. As a result, workers decided they should create their own union so they could tailor it to support Kyrgyz migrants.
Migrant Workers Organizing for Justice
The creation of the Migrant Workers’ Union, its members say, is not just timely but also necessary to protect their rights at a time when more than one-fifth of Kyrgyz citizens are living and working abroad.
Gulzat, a delegate at the congress from the village of Boz-Adyr in the Batken region, first heard about the union at a training session the Solidarity Center and Insan-Leilek held in her village earlier in 2019. “I learned many important things about my labor rights and how they could be protected,” she says. “It was then that I decided to join the Migrant Workers’ Union because I am going back to work in Russia.”
Gulzat first went to work in Russia in 2010, where she experienced wage theft firsthand. “I became a dishwasher in a Moscow cafe and was a victim of fraud when I was left without a salary,” she explains. “I didn’t know where to turn for help, but now I know.”
The Migrant Workers’ Union currently has 2,150 members. But the union’s protections extend beyond just its members. Migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan rely on decent wages not only for themselves but also to support their families back home. Migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan remitted an estimated $2.48 billion in 2018, about 34 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Since 2017, Kyrgyzstan has been the most remittance-dependent country in the world, and remittances are particularly important in its western regions like Batken. As migrant workers learn to defend their rights abroad, they also ensure their families in Kyrgyzstan can have more economic security and access more opportunities at home.
“Everybody needs their union,” says Gulzat. “Especially migrants.”
An independent,12-month monitoring program by a coalition of worker rights advocates in Kyrgyzstan found that the lives and safety of working people are at significantly higher risk than official data indicates—requiring urgent changes to the country’s occupational safety and health (OSH) monitoring system.
“I am asking government to take OSH issues into consideration because they envelop the lives of our workers,” said Eldiyar Karachalov, deputy president of the Kyrgyz union representing construction workers, at a roundtable briefing last month.
The event—which convened worker rights advocates, lawmakers, government administrators and employers for discussions on worker safety—highlighted data collected in 2018 by monitors from Kyrgyz metallurgy and mining, construction, garment and food processing unions and local NGOs Bir Duino Kyrgyzstan and the Insan Leilek Foundation.
According to official labor inspection statistics, 3,808 OSH violations and incidents occurred in 2018. However, the unions’ independent monitoring program found 500 previously unreported OSH violations and incidents—including 155 injuries and 15 deaths. Because most of the unreported OSH incidents occurred in informal-sector workplaces, unions are requesting that the country’s labor monitoring system be expanded into that sector. More than 70 percent of Kyrgyz workers are informal and so have little protection by trade unions or labor laws.
The entity with legal jurisdiction over Kyrgyzstan’s safety inspection system, StateEcoTechInspection, reports limited ability to collect data due to scarce resources. Since 2012, the number of full-time labor inspectors in Kyrgyzstan has fallen from 62 to 23.
“It is absolutely necessary to enlarge the labor inspection authorities and staff,” said Karachalov.
The unions and their NGO partners hope to present their data and recommendations to Parliament during an upcoming hearing on OSH reform. Union recommendations will include a call for adequate funding, an increase in the number of labor inspectors, better training of inspectors, employer-funded safety training for workers and employer-provided personal protective equipment for workers.
According to International Labor Organization (ILO) data, some 2.3 million women and men around the world succumb to work-related accidents or diseases every year, including 340 million victims of occupational accidents and 160 million victims of work-related illnesses. The ILO reports 11,0000 fatal occupational accidents annually in the 12-member states comprising the Commonwealth of Independent States—Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine—but points to “gross underreporting” of occupational accidents and diseases in the region.
Kyrgyzstan is one of the region’s poorest countries. Although the official unemployment rate hovers around 8 percent, more than 1 million Kyrgyz nationals are estimated to be working abroad, particularly in Russia and neighboring Kazakhstan, where wages are higher but conditions for migrant workers can be dire. In Kyrgyzstan, the Solidarity Center aims to strengthen union representation to protect workplace safety and health and secure protections for Kyrgyz workers who migrate for jobs.
A survey conducted this year by the Kyrgyzstan Federation of Trade Unions (KFTU), including unions representing mining and construction workers, found that laws against child labor in the country are inadequate and implementation is uneven, resulting in more than 250,000 children being subjected to hazardous work as recently as 2014—10 years after the country ratified the International Labor Organization convention for elimination of the worst forms of child labor. The KFTU’s survey contributed to a scheduled ILO review of core labor standards in the country.
“The engagement of underage citizens of our republic in the worst forms of child labor is an urgent problem,” concluded the KFTU.
Through interviews conducted by Insan Leilek Social Foundation in Sulyukta this year, supported by the Solidarity Center, KFTU found that many children in the area began working in mining as early as age 8, to help support their families. These children, says the KFTU, are denied a complete education, suffer “abusive treatment” and deteriorated health because of inadequate medical care and lack of protection by government agencies.
Mubarak, an 11-year-old girl living in Ak-Turpak village, said about her neighbor: “[He] on purpose summons all the neighboring children to work in his rice paddies. In the rice fields they stand up to their knees in water all day.”
The greatest contributor to child labor, says the KFTU, is lack of enforcement of laws in the informal economy and agriculture. Children are most commonly found working in street trading, domestic labor, cottage industries and agriculture, especially the cultivation of cotton, rice and tobacco.
A 2014 medical study cited by the KFTU found that 8- to 14-year-old market workers on average lifted and hauled more than 1,717 pounds per day, while 15- to 16-year-old children handled an average of almost 3,000 pounds per day.
Nearly half of the children in the countryside (48.6 percent) work, according to government statistics, and the jobs are often hazardous. Children in fields are exposed to pesticides and chemical fertilizers without protective clothing or safe-handling protocols. Citing a 2017 report by the Office of Akyikatchi (Ombudsman) of the Kyrgyz Republic, KFTU describes how children engaged in cotton cultivation that year spent more than 90 percent of their 10- to 12-hour workday in a bent position, with each child bending an average 9,000 times per day. Children engaged in rice cultivation spent more than 70 percent of their 10- to 12-hour workday with the upper body bent, with each child bending an average 19,440 times per day.
To combat the worst forms of child labor, KFTU recommends that the government create a dedicated state program for eliminating the worst forms of child labor—one which welcomes input from civil society. Other recommendations include governmental monitoring of child labor, increased legal penalties for violation of child labor laws, a government-funded campaign to educate citizens about the harmful effects of child labor and the creation of a coordinating council headed by high-ranking government officials of the Kyrgyz Republic.
The survey resulted from a Solidarity Center training for KFTU affiliates on international labor standards, during which participants developed an action plan for submitting workers’ commentary on child labor in Kyrgyzstan to the ILO.
Of the 152 million children forced to work around the world, nearly half—73 million—are engaged in hazardous work.
Aldaberdi Karimov, 42, who lives in a remote Kyrgyzstan village in the Batken region, did not want to migrate from his country to find work to support his family, including his daughter, Ak Maral, now 5 years old.
But like many in Kyrgyzstan, where remittances from workers abroad make up more than 25 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, Karimov faced the heart-wrenching decision to leave his family to find employment. In fact, so few good jobs are available in the country, especially for workers in rural areas, only 24 percent of Kyrgyz workers are employed in the formal economy.
Aldaberdi Karimov escaped from forced labor and is back in his Kyrgyz village with his family, including his daughter, Ak Maral. Credit: Solidarity Center
And when he left his village, Karimov had no idea he would be a target of force labor and human trafficking. Globally, more than 21 million people are in forced labor, according to the International Labor Organization, which on July 30 marks World Day against Trafficking in Persons.
Forced to Live with Cows in the Barn
Karimov first sought jobs in Russia and then migrated to Kazakhstan, where he worked as a market vendor in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city. Karimov thought he would fare better in Kazakhstan because, like Kyrgyzstan, it is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union.
Between 100,000 to 150,000 Kyrgyz were registered in Kazakhstan at the end of 2017, figures that do not reflect many who are not registered, according to a new report by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). Most work without written contracts or on contracts that do not adequately protect their rights. Their passports typically are confiscated by employers, making it difficult for them to leave abusive jobs, and they have no access to labor protections like safe working conditions and paid leave.
Karimov could not afford the permit needed to sell goods legally in Kazakhstan—costing between $1,500 and $2,000, a permit is the equivalent of a year’s wage. Through an intermediary, he and his brother, Giyazidin, were led to a job on a Kazakh farm in June 2016 tending 100 cows and 2,000 sheep. The farmer said he would pay them 40,000 tenge ($117) each per month.
“The employer promised to pay us not every month, but once every three or four months,” Karimov says. “After three months, we asked for an advance and our employer became very angry and said that the cows and sheep are very thin, so he is not going to pay yet.”
By October, they each had been paid only $100 for six months’ work. Frost and cold rains began and when the brothers asked to be housed in a warmer environment than their small thatched hut in the field, the employer told them to live with the cows and rams in the barn.
Tens of Thousands of Workers in Forced Labor in Kazakhstan
Essentially trapped in forced labor, the brothers made their escape after Giyazidin became so ill that the farmer took him to the hospital. Tens of thousands of workers are estimated to be victims of forced labor in Kazakhstan, with migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan forced to labor in agriculture, construction and the extraction industry.
Like many migrant workers, neither Karimov nor his brother reported their abuse to the police because they did not trust them. In fact, officers of law enforcement agencies often are the link between migrant workers and “buyers” of labor, according to the FIDH report.
Karimov says lack of a labor contract and no police protection left him and his brother vulnerable to human traffickers and inhumane working conditions. Around the world, most migrant workers are denied the right to form unions and bargain with their employer—a fundamental freedom that enables abuse and exploitation. “The lack of labor agreements entails forced labor and even slavery,” says Aina Shormanbayeva, president of the Legal Initiative, a Kazakhstan-based public foundation.
Now back in his village, Karimov says migrating for jobs is now out of the question, even as he searches for work, still seeking wages that will enable him to support his family
Workers who migrate from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan for jobs often do not receive their wages, are forced to work in unsafe and abusive conditions and even are kidnapped and held against their will in forced labor, according to a new report.
“Invisible and Exploited in Kazakhstan” also found that children are forced to labor, with young girls between ages 12 and 17 working as nannies, and boys working in markets and on farms. The report is based on the findings of a series of missions by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and its partners from September to November 2017 in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The Solidarity Center contributed extensively to the report.
“The right to freedom of association is a core principle of human rights and worker rights, including when workers are migrating for jobs,” says Lola Abdukadyrova, Solidarity Center program coordinator. Abdukadyrova spoke yesterday at a press conference in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where the report was released.
Bedroom of five migrant workers in the basement of a construction site in Kazakhstan, November 2017. Credit: FIDH
Between 100,000 to 150,000 Kyrgyz were registered in Kazakhstan at the end of 2017, figures that do not reflect many who are not registered. Most work without written contracts or on contracts that do not adequately protect their rights. Their passports typically are confiscated, making it difficult for them to leave abusive employers, and they have no access to labor protections like safe working conditions and paid leave.
“The lack of labor agreements entails forced labor and even slavery,” says Aina Shormanbayeva, speaking at the press conference, which drew nearly two dozen reporters. Shormanbayeva is president of the Legal Initiative, a Kazakhstan-based public foundation.
Some 81,600 workers were victims of forced labor in Kazakhstan in 2016, according to estimates by the nonprofit Walk Free Foundation, with migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan forced to labor in agriculture, construction and the extraction industry.
Women Migrant Workers Targets of Gender-Based Violence
While some one-third of all migrants were women two to three years ago, the report finds women now comprise half of migrant workers. Women are especially vulnerable, facing gender-based violence in agricultural fields and in employers’ homes when working as domestic workers. They may lack medical care while pregnant and often are fired when employers learn of their pregnancy.
Says one woman migrant worker: “I work as a janitor from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and when there are banquets, until 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. Lunch breaks are 30 minutes maximum. There are no days off. I work every day. Some people can’t prove anything when they don’t get paid because nothing is documented. One woman worked at a car wash, they told her they didn’t have money and so they didn’t pay her. This happens to many people.”
Solidarity Center’s Lola Abdukadyrova, (second from left), discussed the plight of migrant workers in Kazakhstan during a press conference in Bishkek. Credit: Solidarity Center
The report finds migrant workers are not aware of their rights on the job, and they rarely appeal for protection of their rights when their employers perform illegal actions. They also do not believe police are able to protect their rights. In many cases, officers of law enforcement agencies are the link between migrant workers and buyers.
“Kazakhstan has not taken effective measures to prevent, investigate and prosecute persons involved in providing illegal intermediary services, and has not ensured effective legal protection for the victims,” the report states. Kazakh authorities argue that it is not their responsibility to protect migrant workers, and that protection of migrant workers is the responsibility of Akims (heads of regional or local authorities).
Kazakhstan was recently rated one of the 10 worst countries for workers by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Union leader Larisa Kharkova was sentenced in 2017 to four years of restrictions on her freedom of movement, a ban on holding public office for five years and 100 hours of forced labor on false charges of embezzlement. Kharkova led the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan, which was ordered closed by a court ruling. Independent trade unions in Kazakhstan face ongoing attacks on freedom of association and basic trade union rights.
Over the past five years, the Solidarity Center in Kyrgyzstan has worked extensively to advance migrant worker rights, including holding awareness-raising campaigns for potential migrants and their families; supporting a hotline on labor migration issues; and assisting unions in protecting and promoting migrants’ worker rights.