Speaking to journalists on January 7, Tajikistan’s Migration Service chief Safiallo Devonaev said the government is strengthening efforts to diversify destinations for the country’s surplus labor. Already this year about 1,000 physicians and nurses from Tajikistan will get jobs in Saudi Arabia under an agreement reached in November 2009. They can soon be followed by engineers, drivers and construction workers. According to Mr. Devonaev, Tajik authorities are working to reach similar agreements with Qatar, Iran, Kuwait, Belarus and Ukraine. In the long term, the Migration Service chief said, European countries, Turkey and Canada might be willing to take Tajik workers.
Holmamad Nazarov, analyst at a government think tank, claims that Dushanbe’s efforts to find alternative destinations for the country’s labor migrants is motivated by the desire to break its dependence on Russia. Russia continues to be the by far most popular destination with 600,000 to about 1.5 million Tajik labor migrants, followed by Kazakhstan. Tajikistan is heavily dependent on remittances, which amount to seven times what the country obtains in foreign aid, and finance 70 percent of its trade deficit. In 2008, Tajikistan’s labor migrants sent home US$2.6 billion or around 49 percent of the country’s GDP, according to the World Bank. Despite the global financial and economic crisis, the figures for 2009 amounted to US$1.8 billion, according to the IMF. Analysts suggest that remittances have played a key role in keeping millions of Tajiks out of extreme poverty and in helping the authorities avoid social unrest.
Mr. Nazarov states that the economic, social and political importance of remittances for Tajikistan gives Moscow significant leverage in its relations with Dushanbe. “Tajikistan is too dependent on Russia as a recipient of its surplus labor,” says the analyst. “Every time the Tajik government wants to do something that does not please Russia, Moscow brings up the issue of our labor migrants … We need to send our workers to other countries if we want to be really independent.”
In addition to helping break Dushanbe’s dependence on Russia, the effort to secure alternative destinations for Tajikistan’s labor migrants is driven by economic considerations. The global financial crisis has shown that Russia and Kazakhstan’s oil-led economies are very vulnerable to fluctuations in commodity prices. As a result of the major economic downturn in these two countries, remittances to Tajikistan fell by more than 31 percent in 2009, according to the IMF. At the same time, World Bank figures indicate that countries exporting their surplus labor to the Persian Gulf have seen a far smaller decline in remittances during the crisis, prompting a conclusion that Tajikistan’s workers might be better off there.
Analysts predict that the Russian economy will need several years to fully recover and absorb foreign workers at previous levels. For Tajikistan, this means another several years with remittance levels lower than in 2008 unless the country finds better markets for its surplus labor. Besides, with 120,000 people entering the Tajik job market annually, authorities in Dushanbe seem to understand that Russia and Kazakhstan will simply not be able to absorb all Tajik workers.
Finally, Dushanbe’s efforts to reorient labor migration outflows are prompted in part by the mounting criticism at home over the government’s inability to protect Tajik citizens working in Russia. These workers often face abuse from employers, police and migration services. In recent years, they have also become a frequent target of violent attacks by ultranationalist groups. Speaking to journalists on 19 January, the head of the social protection department of the Tajik president’s executive office, Alisher Yorboboyev, said agreements signed with Moscow in the field of labor migration do not guarantee the protection of Tajik citizens in Russia. Although the Tajik government has repeatedly raised these issues with Moscow, little has changed. The Russian Federal Migration Service claims this is in part because more than 80 percent of the Tajik labor migrants work in Russia irregularly.
Despite the Tajik authorities’ focus on finding alternative destinations for the country’s surplus labor, Russia is in the near to medium term likely to remain the primary recipient of migrant workers from Tajikistan. Russia is geographically and historically close to Tajikistan and despite its own unemployment problems, it can offer mostly unskilled Tajik workers hundreds of thousands of jobs not taken by its own citizens. The visa-free regime between the two countries also makes it easy for Tajik citizens to take seasonal jobs in Russia. In addition, Tajik workers in Russia rely on numerous support networks for employment and protection that have been created over two decades and that are not immediately available in other destinations.
By Alexander Sodiqov (02/03/2010 issue of the CACI Analyst)