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Central Asian migrant workers risk mass unemployment

Men in orange visibility vests standing around a construction site under a grey sky.
Central Asian migrant worker at a construction site in Russia. Photo: Rustam Urinboyev

The economic sanctions against Russian following the invasion of Ukraine are having spillover effects in Central Asia. With the prospect of economic and social strain forcing Russian employers to lay off migrant workers, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan are preparing to receive high numbers of newly unemployed men.

The fall of the  Russian rouble in March - as a consequence of Western sanctions - significantly impacted the value of remittances sent home from millions of Central Asian migrant workers in Russia. Remittances from seasonal workers abroad are integral to the economies of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, alleviating unemployment, providing households with income and relieving pressure on public services.

In 2020, remittances from Russia made up one-fourth of Kyrgyzstan's gross domestic product (GDP) and added 3.5 billion Euros of value to the Uzbek economy. But dependency on remittances makes the region vulnerable to economic shocks. In March, the World Bank predicted that the 40 per cent devaluation of the Russian currency, and the decline of economic activity in Russia, would deprive Kyrgyzstan of one-third of its expected remittances and 20-25 per cent of Uzbekistan's and Tajikistan's. The rouble has since recovered with the help of increased fuel prices, continued trade with China and India, and holes in the West's sanction strategies. The World Bank still predicts economic trouble for the region. Uzbekistan's economy is expected to grow by only 3.6 per cent in 2022, about half of earlier estimates, while the GDPs of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan will shrink following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Yet, if sanctions against Russia persist, Central Asia might soon face a more alarming scenario.

Return of unemployed migrants

"Western companies employing hundreds of thousands of Russians have stopped their business with Russia or withdrawn completely from the country," says Sherzod Eraliev, a researcher in the Sociology of Law Department at Lund University studying Central Asian labour migration. "If the sanctions endure for more than three months, when these Western companies, according to Russian labour regulation, no longer have to pay their former employees, many Russians will be on the streets."

Eraliev suspects that the sanctions may force Russia to redistribute funds from social housing and development programmes, leaving the most lucrative job market for Central Asians - the construction industry - stagnant.

Rustam Urinboyev, Associate Professor in the Sociology of Law Department and colleague of Eraliev, estimates that more than half of the Central Asian migrants in Russia work in construction. Many lack work permits and formal contracts, making them targets for dismissal and deportation. Urinboyev believes the increased economic strain on Russians could exacerbate the xenophobic environment, pressuring employers to fire migrant workers and hire newly unemployed Russians instead.

central asia

It is impossible to estimate how many Central Asian migrants will lose their jobs as an effect of war and sanctions. According to official Russian government figures, almost five million Uzbek, Tajik, and Kyrgyz work in the country. But the informal economy could be employing a similar number of Central Asian workers. The number of unemployed men returning home could potentially be massive enough to debilitate all levels of Central Asian society.

"We will see more domestic violence, increased intracommunity conflicts over resources, and less lavish weddings, which traditionally provide social cohesion and social solidarity," Urinboyev says. On the political level, national and regional governments will be expected to act towards improved living and working conditions. "Central Asian governments have been able to postpone reforms since labour migration has acted palliatively by providing economic security to poor households. If migrants return home, there will be huge pressure on central Asian governments to introduce reform, transparency, and mechanisms to fight corruption. But some countries, like Tajikistan, which is becoming more autocratic, will probably use repression to cope with dissent and opposition."

Efforts to absorb returning migrants in the domestic labour market have already begun. In Uzbekistan, the state programme allocating land plots for agriculture prioritises returning migrants, and the national government has tasked local governments with creating more jobs. But job creation has been a consistent problem in Central Asia during the post-Soviet era. Each year, 500 000 young individuals enter the Uzbek labour force. Many are unsuccessful in finding gainful employment, turning to labour markets abroad.

New migrant destinations

Abroad is also where Central Asian governments look to mitigate an unemployment crisis. The idea is to establish new migration channels with the Persian Gulf states, Japan, South Korea, Turkey and Poland, which have special programmes to train and integrate migrant workers.

Turkey is already an attractive destination, with its lax visa regime and high demand for cheaper foreign labour. The nation is also a gateway to the less accessible European Union. Migration intermediaries offer to smuggle migrants into the EU and can provide counterfeit visas and work permits. "Since many migrants returning from Russia will be unable to find a job or will have low salaries, they will be motivated to find legal, semi-legal, or informal ways of coming to Europe," Eraliev says.

"And we can expect to see a spillover effect in Sweden too," Urinboyev adds. "According to our preliminary findings, at least 10 000 undocumented Uzbek migrants work in Stockholm's informal economy. They arrive mainly through Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltics, where they get a Schengen visa. Then they settle and work illegally. Already, more than 100 Uzbek migrants who previously worked in Ukraine have arrived in Sweden and are exploring possibilities to enter the Stockholm labour market."
Changes in migrant destinations could expedite social effects at home. Most jobs offered to migrant labourers in Russia are in male-dominated industries. Elsewhere, that is not the always case. In the Turkish labour market, women are in higher demand than men. A redirection of the migration flow from Russia to Turkey would increase the feminisation of labour migration and influence social norms.

"It will be a huge transformation in a traditional society where gender roles are predetermined," Ereliev says. "It is usually the men that are seen as breadwinners, but if the women go to Turkey as labour migrants, the social dynamics in families might be affected, which at later stages will affect society as a whole."

Photo of Rustam

Rustamjon Urinboyev is an Associate Professor and senior research fellow at the Department of Sociology of Law. He works at the intersection of sociology of law and ethnography, studying migration, corruption, governance and penal institutions in the context of Russia, Central Asia and Turkey.

More information about his research.

Sherzod Eraliev

Sherzod Eraliev is a postdoctoral research at the Sociology of Law Department. His main research fields are Migration Studies in Russia and Eurasia and Politics and Society in Central Asia.

More information about his research.