The new immigration control measures: who stands to benefit?
Resolution of the Cabinet of Ministers "On record keeping concerning citizens of the Republic of Uzbekistan employed abroad" was adopted in Uzbekistan in the middle of May 2007. Problems of labor immigration are in the focus of interest in Uzbekistan because labor immigration is a distinct prospect for a great many of its citizens. It is only logical therefore that the document in question and its practical implementation attract vivid interest.
Official Uzbek media outlets are notoriously closemouthed with regard to the authorities' intentions, and Ferghana.Ru editorial office is therefore bombarded with questions that mostly come down to the following. Do the latest standard acts check with international conventions on labor immigration? Must citizens of Uzbekistan apply to the national authorities for work permits abroad? Is the absence of these work permits punishable by the acting Uzbek legislation? Will the recent resolution make departure for foreign countries (obtaining of exit visas) more difficult? Ferghana.Ru correspondents approached independent experts for answers to these and other questions.
Experts are unanimous that the Uzbek authorities cannot be angling for any restrictions in connection with labor immigration because immigrants' transactions to Uzbekistan account for up to 8% of the GDP (official estimates gauge them to reach $1.3 billion every year). Labor immigrants support themselves and their families. Every labor immigrant supports 4-5 dependants at home, at least one of them an adult without a stable job and therefore stable income. One million labor immigrants from Uzbekistan mean that the national budget can save $40 million worth of unemployment reliefs and nearly $25 million worth of grants to poor families every year. Moreover, what transactions Uzbek families receive from abroad support the domestic demand and, to some extent, domestic production. Last but not the least, some labor immigrants do succeed and save enough to launch their own businesses in Uzbekistan and that means new jobs for the locals.
Experts estimate the number of labor immigrants from Uzbekistan (legitimate and illegal) at 1-1.5 million and the figure increases by 5-8% every year. Tong Jahonim, the international organization that researched labor immigration between 2003 and 2006, claims that three regions of the Ferghana Valley alone provided up to 250,000 immigrants every year even though the authorities withheld the permission to leave the country to almost 90,000 potential labor immigrants in 2005 because of the tragic events in Andijan.
According to official estimates, 85% of all labor immigrants from Uzbekistan end up in the countries of the Commonwealth. This is the structure of labor immigration from Uzbekistan in 2004 (data provided by Tong Jahonim):
%South Korea 4.7
%EU countries 0.6
%United Arab Emirates 0.4
%other countries including the United States 0.2
%domestic labor immigration in Uzbekistan itself 8.9
%Colloquially known as Gastarbeiters, labor immigrants find employment for a season or for several years in the majority of countries they end up in. Kazakhstan is the only exception. Seasonal migrants go to its southern regions to harvest cotton every year by whole families. Between 200,000 and 300,000 Gastarbeiters from Uzbekistan work the Kazakh cotton plantations in the harvesting season, and some of them later remain as construction workers.
In Russia, Uzbek Gastarbeiters mostly concentrate in the Moscow region, St.Petersburg, Samara, Saratov, and South Siberia.
Some specialists say that labor immigration from Uzbekistan to South Korea ebbed after a series of scandals in 2004. Official Seoul stiffened immigration control and visa procedures when it was discovered that Uzbek girls were mostly working in South Korea as prostitutes.
Mass labor immigration has both pros and cons. The latter include the downfall of Uzbek families' traditional values and breakup of homes because of conflicts with elders or because women in these families find themselves without the provider are compelled to seek other sources of income.
Secondly, mass depopulation of whole regions (do not forget that it is the economically active population that is leaving) makes their own economic revival and restoration of the local markets of labor impossible. Practically all able-bodied population leaves the Yakkabag district of the Kashkandarja region, Syrdarja district of the Jizak region, Arkhangelsk district of the Tashkent region, and districts of the Syrhandarja region and Karakalpakstan.
Uzbek Gastarbeiters regularly encounter cheating employers, violence, and other forms of encroachment on their rights. Every tenth runs the real risk of finding him- or herself a slave, every second is mercilessly exploited. More than 85% of them work 60 hours a week for a pay 2.5 times smaller than what is paid the locals. According to what information Tong Jahonim has compiled, 67.2% of Gastarbeiters fell victims of exploitation, 0.2% of them victims of sexual abuse. Ninety-eight percent of labor immigrants admit that they have been swindled at least once.
Last but not the least, mass labor immigration has a negative effect on the youths who do not care for professional or higher education since that is not what a Gastarbeiter needs. As a matter of fact, immigration even affects the socially prosperous strata of the youth. Tong Jahonim approached a lot of students in Tashkent in 2003 and discovered that 92.5% of them aged 16-21 would leave the country in search of employment abroad given half a chance. Only 0.06% of them in the meantime displayed at least a dim knowledge of the legal procedures involved or of foreign immigration legislations.
Its sovereignty gained 16 years ago, Uzbekistan is not a signatory to UN conventions on labor immigration. It is not even a member of the World Labor Organization. No labor immigration accords with CIS neighbors were signed until recently.
On June 28, 2007, the government of the Russian Federation received three draft accords with the Republic of Uzbekistan: on cooperation in the war on illegal immigration, on labor and protection of labor immigrants' rights, and on readmission (expulsion of illegal immigrants). The document on illegal immigration regulates matters of border and immigration control and stipulates record keeping on trespassers, exchange of information, joint research, and personnel training for control structures. The measures stipulates by the latest resolution of the Uzbek Cabinet of Ministers will hopefully be taken simultaneously with the signing and ratification of bilateral accords between Uzbekistan and Russia.
Right before the middle of the 1990's, Uzbek legislation pertaining labor immigration was restricted to Article 13 of the law "On employment". It stated that "Citizens of the Republic of Uzbekistan are empowered to work and seek employment beyond the territory of the Republic of Uzbekistan, their labor activity there and labor activity of foreigners in the Republic of Uzbekistan regulated by the laws of the Republic of Uzbekistan." The "laws" in question took the form of government resolutions dated 1995, 2001, and 2003.
Government resolution "On organization of labor activity of citizens of the Republic of Uzbekistan abroad" (2003) directed would-be labor immigrants to a special department of the Labor and Social Protection Ministry's Agency for External Labor Immigration for permits to seek employment abroad. The Agency in the meantime was expected to run its decisions by the Interdepartmental Commission of the Cabinet of Ministers. In other words, the question of what citizens of Uzbekistan were to be permitted to become legitimate labor immigrants was handled at the government level. Independent experts appraise it as a bad practice because for 20,000 applications to the Agency every year only 1,500 or so permits were issued, and only for menial work at that.
Even the application procedure itself is something. The applicant is expected to provide a copy of the contract (translated into the state language with the notary public's seal and stamped by the Uzbek consulate in the given foreign country) specifying all social guarantees and medical insurance terms and, no less importantly, the employer's obligation to help the employee with the local work permit. Sure, immigration legislations of a great deal of other countries involve an even more complicated redtape that is supposed to be defending labor immigrants' rights. On the other hand, the ratio of legitimate labor immigrants to labor immigration that exceeds 800,000 even by official estimates plainly shows absolute deficiency of this practice in the Commonwealth and specifically in Uzbekistan.
The Agency for External Labor Immigration mostly sent labor immigrants to South Korea (more than 90%). All necessary paper work was usually done by lawyers from intermediator firms. Also importantly, Uzbek Gastarbeiters went to foreign countries as apprentices, the nuance that permitted the host countries not to apply local legislation to them (to extend work hours and to underpay). In fact, even whoever departed Uzbekistan on the official Agency quotas were regarded as apprentices. Mass labor immigration remained mostly illegal - even from the standpoint of Uzbek legislation.
Clause 6 of the latest Cabinet resolution instructs the Labor and Social Protection Ministry and Economy Ministry with all involved ministries and departments to come up with simpler procedures and smaller fees for the permits to work abroad and gives them two months for it. In the meantime, would-be labor immigrants are unlikely to stampede to the Agency for External Labor Immigration for permits unless the "involved ministries and departments" design some measures of coercion.
As things stand, acting Uzbek legislation does not stipulate any serious punishment for employment abroad without official permission from the authorities of Uzbekistan (save for involvement with illegal armed formations, of course, which is punishable by between 5 and 10 years imprisonment under Article 154 of the Criminal Code). Experts point out, however, that the relations between the Uzbekistan powers-that-be and citizens are such nowadays that the former may actually come up with some sort of administrative prosecution of illegal labor immigrants. Say, for tax evasion or concealment of income (Article 174), violation of business regulations (Article 176), or improper documents for travel abroad (Article 226) - all of them punishable by a fine amounting to three, five, or ten minimal wages.
In the meantime, measures like that are unlikely to become mass applied in a hurry because the authorities, informed as they are on labor immigrants, certainly wield the administrative resource to bring every deliberate or inadvertent violator to answer. It is the people who do fine abroad, so fine that they may attract the attention of Uzbek state structures, who should be - and are - apprehensive. Unfortunately, stiffer state control over labor immigrants and their income paves way to corruption and the Uzbek authorities are already unbelievably corrupt.
Some experts suspect - not unreasonably - that the intended record keeping with regard to Gastarbeiters will allow for new forms of putting under pressure the "politically disloyal" and their families. Of course, it depends to a considerable extent on the general political and civil atmosphere in Uzbek society.
The May resolution specifies no changes in the exit visa procedures. These days, whoever applies for the exit visa is only expected to forward to the local OVIR (department of visas and passports) his or her biography, data on relatives, political preferences, troubles with the law (if any), past jobs, and indicate the purpose of the intended visit. It is common knowledge in the meantime that regardless of the true purpose of the intended trip abroad, people applying for exit visas claim to be ordinary tourists intent on visiting Turkey, China, or Southeast Asia (it became widespread practice in the early 1990's when a lot of Uzbeks became shuttle vendors buying cheap commodities abroad and bringing them to Uzbekistan). The information thus provided to the OVIR should be certified at the latest job. When, however, it is an unemployed who applies for the exit visa, the information may be authenticated by the mahallja committee which is never a problem particularly when the applicant is prepared to donate a small sum to the mahallja. It is never a bribe, no, just a "demonstration of good will" with regard to the local self-government body that is ever underfinanced and does need donations. When the centralized database on labor immigrants is finally formed, the OVIRs will be able to use it too even though there is actually nothing to prevent applicants from indicating literally any purpose of the intended trip abroad, and exit visas in Uzbekistan are issued for two years. Visa-holder may actually decide to work a bit somewhere in the Commonwealth in order to save enough for a vacation in Thailand afterwards. Nothing criminal about it, is there? From the legal standpoint, however, absolutely every violation of the provisional residence or labor regulations logged by foreign immigration services and transmitted to their Uzbek analogs may provide an excuse for denial of the visa.
Traditionally enough, the Uzbek authorities ascribe the latest resolution of the Cabinet to the best intentions and refer to the experience in this sphere accumulated by advanced countries. Time will show what effect on the lives of labor immigrants the resolution and bilateral agreements with CIS countries are going to have. The population had better hope for the best - as always.