15 july 2020

Central Asia news

Uzbek Gastarbeiters learn new trades in the United States

20.05.2009 12:13 msk

Syd Yanyshev

Migration Uzbekistan

Uzbek intelligentsia found itself in a definitely bizarre, if not outright paradoxical, situation. Well-educated, smart, and talented as they are, these people are compelled to seek employment abroad where they end up doing backbreaking and low-paid menial labor more often than not. As a matter of fact, the necessity to seek employment abroad is in itself something paradoxical for the wealthy Uzbekistan. It is a lot of both workers and intelligentsia.

Uzbek Gastarbeiters which is how labor immigrants are colloquially referred to prefer to seek employment in Kazakhstan or Russia for two reasons. First, life there is better even despite the global economic crisis which means that by going there, they have at least a fighting chance to make some money they will never make in Uzbekistan itself. Second, these countries are geographically closer to Uzbekistan and the natives speak Russian. What labor immigrants speak no foreign languages find landing a job in these countries understandably easier.

All the same, there are always the people who choose to go to distant foreign countries and specifically to the United States. Moreover, seeking employment so far from home is a fairly wide-spread practice, at least among the Tashkent intelligentsia. Practically every tenth resident of Tashkent has a relative, a friend or acquaintance, of even acquaintance of an acquaintance, who visited the United States not exactly as an idle sightseer and made some money there.

Making a trip to the United States is immeasurably more difficult than visiting Kazakhstan or Russia. First and foremost, a person intent on going there needs the initial capital (several thousand USD for starters) for the visa, ticket, and the period adaptation to life in a faraway and strange country.

Neither does knowledge of the English language hurt, even though one may do without it as well. Some bandied phrases will suffice. There are people who do not speak English even after a year spent in the United States, say, in New York. Settling in the so called Russian districts (like Brighton Beach in Brooklyn), some people manage without English even after a decade of living there. Why bother indeed when one lives in the Russian community, gets his or her welfare, and makes all purchases in Russian shops only? This is particularly true of pensioners.

In a word, Gastarbeiters going to the United States do greatly differ from whoever seeks employment in nearby countries. As a rule, these latter are poorly educated people from the provinces barely making ends meet at home and therefore prepared to toil and slave for the chance to send their families (with many children, more often than not) $100-200 once a month.

Whoever chooses the country across the ocean usually has a university diploma or even two. They are residents of Tashkent and other major cities either unemployed altogether or paid a pittance - and even that irregularly. In the meantime, these people do not exactly starve. There is always a chance to make some money in a large city - even though not in accordance with one's training and experience.

On the other hand, these people are fed up with living on the threshold of impoverishment. They want fully-fledged lives, full stomachs, good clothes, and an opportunity to bask on a seashore (something all but forgotten since childhood or youths in the USSR) at least once every five years or so. Some of them want an apartment of their own, or a car - even second-hand. All these desires are perfectly understandable and natural for any person living in a sovereign and wealthy country but deprived of all of that.

Hence the trips to the United States, following accumulation of the necessary sum from relatives and friends. The debts are usually paid within the first month of work far from home. Whatever else the Gastarbeiter makes is his or hers. It is clear that a year or even a half year of work in America enables Gastarbeiters to save a considerable sum by Uzbek standards - $10,000 or even more which is way beyond what Uzbek labor immigrants make in Russia or Kazakhstan. But making the trip to the United States is difficult too. Not every Uzbek from the provinces will even aspire to making it.

It is necessary to add that the Uzbeks going to the United States (just like those content with going to nearby countries) work there mostly without permit. To get a working visa, one needs an official invitation from the US business prepared to employ one. Where will an Uzbek teacher or engineer with a Soviet or even Uzbek university diploma get it? The Americans have their own specialists, and diplomas from post-Soviet countries carry little if any weight in the United States.

That is why Uzbeks mostly visit the United States with the guest visa (B1/B2 class) even though getting this visa is a chore too. The US Consul has to be persuaded that the applicant has a private invitation from some US citizen who will pay for the medical services if need be, and that the applicant has enough money to pay for the trip and staying in the United States (or that the host will take care of it). Finally, the US Consul has to be persuaded that the applicant is determined to return home afterwards. This is where visas from other countries come in handy in the passport. They serve as proof that the applicant could be trusted to go home because he already visited other countries and did return to Uzbekistan.

In short, potential Gastarbeiters (usually well-educated, decent, and law-abiding citizens) must lie through the teeth and do so convincingly even if it collides with his principles.

"Yes, I have a humanitarian college diploma. I spent years working as a TV anchor and for a prominent FM radio broadcaster. I also said that I had hosted lots of concertos - which was not a lie at all," said an ex-Gastarbeiter by name of Rasul (all names are changed).

"I also told the consul that I had enough money to pay for my way to the United States. He probably never even guessed that our TV paid a pittance and that a pittance was all they were ever paying me. Something about $100 a month. FM station was paying even less than that, and concertos... they did not occur all that frequently. It's in America that people like me may be millionaires. The kind of pay we had to be content with in Uzbekistan would have shocked them," Rasul continued.

"Before going to the US Embassy, I borrowed an expensive leather coat and a gold ring from a relative. I acted utterly unconcerned - which was not difficult considering my past experience in dealing with stage fright."

Gastarbeiters always have some knowledge of where they are going and what they should expect. A relative or a friend already made this trip once. He is always willing to give the would-be traveller all necessary information including acquaintances' addresses and phone numbers and data on potential employers.

"I deplaned in New York and took subway to Brooklyn. I had an address in Brooklyn, one given me by a friend who had lived and worked in the United States. Once there, I found the two-floor building on West 6 and the three-room apartment of one Larisa there. This elderly once Muscovite had come to the United States with a Green Card and rented this apartment two rooms in which she now leased to illegal labor immigrants from the Commonwealth," Rasul said.

"Larisa herself did without a job. What the tenants paid her was enough to enable Larisa to pay the rent and lead her life. She always had at least 7 tenants, divided between a room with four bunks in it and the other with three bunks. Considering these seven tenants, we used to call her Snow White. Anyway, tenants constantly changed. Some turned up, others dropped out. Some tenants promptly banded together, 3-4 men, and rented an apartment of their own. We were expected to pay the rent weekly - $55 per man. It made for $220 a month. Every man had his own little space in the refrigerator (one for all) and a key to the entrance."

"My neighbors had come to the United States in the hope to settle there somehow. Some of them made it, but most failed. Practically all of us had guest visas for a single year. Right at the airport, Immigration Service officials sealed our immigration cards with the 3 to 6 months permit to stay stamp. When this period expired, we all had to appeal to the Immigration Service for extension. Some were permitted to stay on, others denied the permission but they remained in the United States all the same because finding them was next to impossible," Rasul said. "The stamp in my passport read 6 months. I applied for extension when the time was up, the authorities denied the request, but I stayed on all the same. I spent six months longer in America because I had a return ticket with an open date."

"As a matter of fact, I had never intended to spend more than a year in the United States. I only wanted to make enough money to buy an apartment in Uzbekistan because we had been living at my wife's parents'. Some of my neighbors, however, said that they had sold their apartments back at home just in order to go to the United States. They said the bribes they had paid in their respective countries, in Russia for one, were exorbitant. I not sure about nowadays, but back then officials of the US Embassy in Uzbekistan brooked no bribes. One had to use his wits to get the visa," Rasul said.

"I came to Brooklyn in New York and immediately settled at the hostel whose owners' phone number I had been given by friends," said Marat from Osh, Kyrgyzstan, a former Gastarbeiter and architect with diploma. "The owner himself, a former Russian, did not live there. He merely rented the premises for the likes of us. There were four rooms in the apartment, three of them divided into two each, so that there were seven tiny rooms in all with two-tier bunks in them. All in all, the apartment could accommodate 15 men, and it was an infrequent night that a bunk in it was vacant. Each of us paid the owner $50 a week. There are lots of hostels like that in Brooklyn for illegal labor immigrants from practically all post-Soviet countries."

Rasul and Marat spent a year each in New York. Each changed at least ten vocations.

"For jobs, we usually went to the unemployment exchange at Borough Park. That's a large area with the Orthodox Jew population. Well, there was this unofficial unemployment exchange there, where Streets 37 and 39 intersected. We have several analogous ones in Tashkent too (at Chorsu or Yunisabad) attended by the so called mardikors from the Uzbek regions and by students."

"Well, illegal labor immigrants haunted this exchange at Borough Park. Autos pulled over and selected Gastarbeiters. Some employers needed one man, others three. Some of them had only several hours' worth of work to offer but others needed workers for the whole day, several days, or even for a month," Marat continued.

"Jobs were different. I was a mover... It's when people move somewhere, all their worldly belongings ought to be taken out of the house, loaded, moved to a new place, unloaded again, and brought inside. That was probably the worst physical labor... I was a house painter as well, hired once to paint classrooms of the Jewish school right there, at Borough Park. Besides, I worked at the lathe, at the egg-handling plant, ferried bread to malls, helped out at the summer camp kitchen, at the funeral parlor in Manhattan, at a construction site, at a private household whose owners wanted a pool on their front lawn, at a furniture factory, and so on," Marat said. "Wages were usually hourly - $5-10. It was usually $8-10 if I was hired for several hours, and $5-6 if for the day."

"Employment as a busboy at Russian restaurants was the best in terms of permanency, but the work itself was really something. Busboys there do all the dirty work even including toilet cleansing (where somebody could always be counted on to have missed the toilet or puked on the floor) and dish-washing. Anyway, Russian restaurants only needed the likes of us three days a week - Friday to Sunday or on banquet days when waiters sometimes paid us $200-250 a day. On workdays, however, it was back to the Borough Park exchange."

"I wouldn't say that the authorities were completely in the dark concerning existence of the unemployment exchange or hostels. Some of us did get drunk every now and then - just to ease the strain, you understand. Blows were sometimes exchanged, and neighbors called the police. The police came, we assured them that everything was all right, and they left," Marat said. "As for the exchange, the authorities could bag 30-40 illegal labor immigrants there literally any moment, had they been of the mind to do so. Only once, for some unfathomable reason, we saw notices on the lamp posts near the unemployment exchange. It was written there in poor Russian "Attention. The exchange is now at the street corner of the 35th and 39th. Go there. The police will leave you alone." We never went there, of course, because our potential employers knew nothing about this change of location. So, we stayed on right there and nobody bothered us. Sure, the police did approach us every now and then to tell us through bullhorns to disperse. We did, and assembled again when the police drove away."

Women find jobs in the United States too, not only men. Women approach numerous employment agencies officially established by immigrants from the USSR. American families employ them as home attenders and baby-sitters. Knowledge of the English language is a must. Agencies select elderly women for these jobs, in return for the woman's weekly pay. It amounted to $250-300 a decade ago. These days, it must be $400 at least.

Women have an advantage over men. Living in families, they save on food and rent and therefore can squirrel away practically all their wages. This is why they take home more than men do, sometimes up to $18,000. Home attenders do house chores and see after elderly Americans.

"I made three trips to the United States," said one Khilola, a doctor with 30 years worth of experience in a Tashkent hospital. "I sat three children for a wealthy Jewish family on my first stay. I worked six days a week and had a day off on Sunday. They paid me $300 a week. The job was all right. All one had to do was treat the kids as if one's own, and that was that."

"I took care of oldsters on the other two trips. That was more difficult of course. I cooked, cleaned the house, washed, changed my charges... All day was busy, and sometimes even nights when my charges couldn't sleep. I was paid $400 a week then. Actually, one gets used to it and starts treating the charges as though kids. It's easier this way," Khilola said. "Leaving America for good, I turned the job over to an acquaintance, a school teacher from Tashkent. It was not charity, of course. She gave me her first week pay, just I had given it to the agency once. It's standard practice and nobody minds. Employers are spared the necessity to approach the agency again. My successor paid me the sum she would have paid the agency anyway. And so she herself will be paid by her successor, probably her own relative or acquaintance. Or even by me, perhaps, should I decide to go there again."

It will be a mistake to assume that absolutely all Gastarbeiters come back loaded with money or come back at all. Very many (particularly men with a more or less steady job) are conned - they are told to wait a bit because of "financial difficulties" and eventually chucked out without pay. Since the man was employed illegitimately in the first place, he cannot even lodge a complaint.

Some would-be Gastarbeiters lack the spirit and buckle under the permanent physical and moral strain. They become heavy drinkers or, even worse, drug addicts. Others simply drop out of sight so that there is no way to tell if the man is alive or not. Few of them ever return.

According to The Wall Street Journal, economic crisis forced lots of Americans to start looking for the jobs in sectors they would have never even pondered otherwise - retail trade, restaurants, and so on. Jobs, however, are hard to come by even in these spheres. Unemployment in the United States this February reached the all-time high in nearby three decades and exceeded 15% of the able-working population. (It had been but 5% only a year ago.)

Anyway, all Gastarbeiters this news agency approach claim that there are jobs to be had in America all the same. There are the spheres of the labor market in this country the Americans themselves will never seek jobs in. Slaughter-houses, for example, are the places the Americans steer clear off, so that they employ illegal labor immigrants and pay them $8-10 an hour. Or fishing industry in Alaska where Gastarbeiters, Uzbeks among them, work 14 hours a day in cold sea water.

There are lots of other analogous jobs as well. The Americans will never stoop to seek them out, but labor immigrants do not mind backbreaking labor, subzero temperatures, hunger, humiliation, and longing for the native land and family - anything as long as they retain the hope of going home with money earned and saved one fine day.