As Russian economy sputters, UK lures Central Asian labour migrants

As Russian economy sputters, UK lures Central Asian labour migrants
Remittances power Tajikistan’s economy. Many families in Central Asia's poorest country can't make ends meet without wages sent home by family members. / Ekrem Canli, cc-by-sa 3.0.
By Joanna Lillis for Eurasianet June 17, 2022

For many poor families in Central Asia, Russia’s distant war in Ukraine could spell financial disaster.

A sanctions-related slump in Russia is translating into a collapse in the remittances sent home by labour migrants, which keep food on the table for many households in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

As Russia starts to lose its lustre as the prime destination for migrants from Central Asia, which had nearly 8mn there according to a World Bank count in 2020, they are being wooed by an unlikely alternative.

This spring, farms in the United Kingdom have been welcoming workers from Central Asia to pick produce and fill Brexit-related labour shortages, the BBC reported this week.

One farm has employed 45 labourers from Tajikistan to pick fruit, along with workers from other countries such as Nepal and Indonesia.

Workers from the European Union used to fill those seasonal jobs, before the UK voted to exit the EU and thus removed the automatic right of citizens from member states to work in Britain.

Many Ukrainians filled the gap until the war intervened, according to the BBC.

The opportunity to get in on the action has not passed unnoticed in Kyrgyzstan, where the government in March signed an agreement with an international agricultural sector recruitment company to send workers to Britain.

The openings were heavily oversubscribed, with 7,000 applications received for the 1,000 jobs on offer.

Recruiting from Eastern European and former Soviet states including Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the company, Agri-HR, now has a Kyrgyz language page and a telephone number in Kyrgyzstan for would-be recruits to call.

The UK’s recruitment programme also looks attractive for Uzbekistan, whose government has previously set the goal of diversifying labour migration destinations to reduce reliance on Russia.

Last year, Uzbekistan received 56% of its remittances from Russia, according to World Bank data.

For Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan the totals were much higher, at 82% and 76%, respectively.

Those two countries are also far more reliant on remittances than Uzbekistan, with its larger, more diversified economy.

Remittances were equivalent to around a third of GDP in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan last year, the World Bank says. For Uzbekistan, the figure was 13%.

Earlier this month a visiting UN rapporteur urged the Kyrgyz government to wean its economy off this reliance on migrants and their remittances, saying it has caused a “human capital flight crisis, which may ultimately harm the country’s development prospects.”

The World Bank’s forecast of drastic drops in remittances to Central Asia this year, against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine and the economic fallout for Russia, highlight the risks of countries relying on this cash sent home by migrants.

Remittances to Uzbekistan will fall by 21%, to Tajikistan by 22% and to Kyrgyzstan by 32%, the World Bank predicts. (Kyrgyzstan’s central bank offers a more optimistic forecast, of a 20% drop.)

The number of Central Asians heading to the UK to pick fruit and vegetables may be a drop in the ocean for now.

But as Russia continues waging war on Ukraine and its economy faces an uncertain outlook, all alternative destinations are welcome.

Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.

This article originally appeared on Eurasianet here.