01/26/2010, 00.00
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War among the poor as Uzbek migrant workers seek jobs in Kyrgyzstan

Uzbeks seek seasonal work from March to November. They take whatever job they can find at the lowest wage they can get, and sometimes are not even paid. Since they are illegal, they cannot complain. Still, there is not much work to go around, and Kyrgyz workers complain that their presence is pushing down wages. Inter-ethnic tensions are a real possibility.
Bishkek (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The world’s financial woes are devastating the economies of Central Asia. In Uzbekistan, unemployment is high and legions of unskilled Uzbek workers are emigrating to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan where they are competing for jobs with unemployed Kyrgyz.

Every spring, Uzbek day labourers (mardikerlar in Uzbek) cross into Kyrgyzstan, especially the south, looking for low-paid seasonal work. They compete with local workers because they accept lower wages in a war of survival among the poor. They work illegally on farmland, in construction or making bricks because an agreement between the two countries that allows their respective citizens to freely cross into the other and stay for up to 60 days without a visa does not allow them to work in the other country.

However, many Kyrgyz employers prefer Uzbeks because they accept low wages, seasonal employment and do not complain. One of them, interviewed by Eurasianet, said that Uzbek migrants accept one Kyrgyz som for two bricks (2 cents US) whilst Kyrgyz workers get twice as much.

In winter, there is little work and Uzbeks have to make the trek home, to wait for the next spring.

Some migrants complain that sometimes they do not get all the money they are owed but cannot complain because they are illegal and could be expelled by police at any time.

"Uzbek labourers do the hardest work," said Azimjan Askarov, the head of Vozdukh (Air), a human rights and legal services NGO. "Few Kyrgyz citizens are interested in working on fields under the hot sun."

Kyrgyz migrants prefer to go to Russia, where salaries are better. They tend to know Russian, which they studied at school, whilst many Uzbeks do not know the language as well.

In any event, there is not much work and the presence of migrants tends to keep the cost of unskilled labour very low. Experts are concerned that his might lead to interethnic tensions with unemployed Kyrgyz.

In the 1990s, the Osh region was the scene of clashes between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Recently, Uzbek President Islam Karimov said that the country’s economy was recovering, but many experts are not convinced, saying that GDP and figures unemployment rates are manipulated.

At the end of 2009, Standard & Poor downgraded Uzbekistan to the ultra-high-risk category. The Heritage Foundation in the United States ranked Uzbekistan 158th out of a 179-country survey, which earned the country the designation of "repressed" economy.

Kyrgyzstan, meanwhile, ranked 80th in the Heritage Foundation survey, good enough for a "moderately free" designation.

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