PANNIER: Russia the loser as wider world of migrant work opens up to Uzbek citizens

PANNIER: Russia the loser as wider world of migrant work opens up to Uzbek citizens
Railway construction workers at a site near Berlin. Germany is looking to hire 50,000 Uzbeks to fill jobs in industries including construction, restaurants, hotels and trucking. / Steffen Zahn, Berlin, cc-by-2.0
By Bruce Pannier February 9, 2024

The options for Uzbek citizens looking for employment abroad were limited for years prior to some distinct recent changes that have widened opportunities.

For many years, most Uzbek migrant labourers have headed to Russia. Officially, there are now some two million Uzbek citizens working in Russia, though many observers believe the real number, including Uzbek citizens working illegally in Russia, is closer to four million.

Most jobs are low-paying manual labour in the construction or agriculture sectors.

Conditions are hard, and there is always the risk of employers not paying wages, police and customs officials demanding bribes, attacks from skinheads or ultra-nationalists and, more recently, being press-ganged into the Russian military for service in Ukraine.

Since the start of February, however, new employment opportunities, with citizens of Uzbekistan specifically sought, have opened up in Germany, South Korea and Israel.

Germany was first to step forward. It was announced that some 50,000 workplaces in Germany are available to citizens of Uzbekistan. The available jobs are mainly in construction, restaurants and hotels, trucking and mechanical repairs and maintenance for trucks and agricultural vehicles.

The average monthly salary in Uzbekistan is around $370.

According to the Uzbek information website, starting pay for workers who obtain employment through the Ausbildung program, organised by the German Ministry of Labour, is 1,000 euros per month.

Those who directly conclude contracts with German employers could see salaries of 2,000 euros per month.

Several days after reports were published about the 50,000 jobs waiting in Germany for Uzbeks, reports appeared about South Korea offering 100,000 workplaces for Uzbek citizens.

Rice harvesting in Hongcheon Province, South Korea. The country wants to hire 37,400 Uzbek citizens, mainly for work in agriculture, food production, restaurants and hotels (Credit:  P.M. Lydon /, cc-by-sa 4.0).

Most of the jobs in Korea are in the food production and agriculture sectors, as well as in restaurants and hotels. The first stage of the Korean job recruitment involves hiring some 37,400 Uzbek citizens. Only people born after February 2, 1984, and before February 1, 2006, are eligible.

The average monthly salary on offer is reportedly $2,000-2,500.

Both the German and South Korean authorities are also requiring applicants to commit to studying, respectively, the German or Korean language at centres in Uzbekistan before making the journey for the work.

Interestingly, Germany and South Korea’s choice of hiring people from Uzbekistan might not be as strange as it initially appears. German and Korean communities in the Soviet Union were relocated to Central Asia, particularly to Uzbekistan, during the Second World War.

Many left for Germany or South Korea after the late 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, but they have maintained ties with friends and family still living in Central Asia.

Adding to new job potential abroad for Uzbeks, Israel’s government on February 4 announced that it was looking for 65,000 workers from Uzbekistan as well as India and Sri Lanka. The Israeli plan is to fill positions previously held by 72,000 Palestinian workers who were laid off after the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel.

Workers constructing a pier in Jaffa Port, Israel (ראובן אברמוביץ ציפס, cc-by-sa 2.5).

The Times of Israel reported that the minimum salary for the Palestinian workers who were dismissed was about $8.64 per hour, or $1,500 per month, “while more professional and experienced Palestinian workers” were being paid about 60% more.

It is not yet clear how many of the 65,000 jobs will go to citizens of Uzbekistan, but an agreement on labour migration that Uzbekistan and Israel signed in July 2022 provides for up to 8,000 workers a year from Uzbekistan to be employed in Israel.

A report from late January noted Israel’s Ministry of Construction and Housing was facing some problems in bringing Uzbek workers to Israel, but it was published a week before reports that Israel was seeking to source Uzbek, Indian and Sri Lankan workers.

So, it is possible that the obstacles to Israel’s recruitment of workers from Uzbekistan have since been removed.

As in the cases of Germany and South Korea, there is a historic link between Israel and Uzbekistan as thousands of Bukharan Jews left Uzbekistan for Israel after the fall of the USSR.

Still, it is interesting that Uzbek citizens in particular are being sought by Germany, South Korea and Israel.

In 2023, Italian authorities announced that due to a shortage of local agricultural workers and abandoned farms they would bring some 100 shepherds from Kyrgyzstan to Sardinia to help tend goats, sheep and horses, but that seems to be the only other case where a government sought citizens from one Central Asian country specifically.

In 2022, British authorities initiated a programme to bring seasonal workers from Central Asia, with many needed for fruit-picking that, prior to Brexit, was previously typically done by EU citizens who had relatively easy access to the UK jobs market. In the recruitment, Uzbek citizens were the second largest group, making up some 2,000 workers, while Kyrgyz citizens made up the fourth largest group.

Uzbekistan’s Labour Ministry appears to have been working with governments in Europe, East Asia and the Middle East to find new job opportunities for citizens of Uzbekistan, a country of 35mn and Central Asia’s most populous nation, in places other than Russia.

The reason might simply be securing additional support for the domestic economy in Uzbekistan.

Remittances account for more than 10% of Uzbekistan’s GDP and in some recent years the percentage has approached 20%.

Many families in Uzbekistan are dependent on the money relatives working abroad send back home.

Uzbekistan’s Central Bank recently noted that remittances from Russia dropped from 87% to 78% of total remittances received in Uzbekistan.

There will almost certainly be fierce competition in Uzbekistan for the approximately 160,000, or more, workplaces opening up in Germany, South Korea and Israel, due to the salaries and safer working conditions involved.

Uzbek citizens are the winner in all of this. Russia, which badly needs migrant labourers, is the loser, especially if other countries also needing to fill workplace vacancies see the benefits of raising work permit quota numbers for Uzbeks, and perhaps citizens of other Central Asian countries.