Kyrgyzstan: where informality is a lifestyle

Every year, thousands of migrants and their families make their way to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, in search of a better life.

But what they find is usually far from what was expected.

When crossing the Leo Tolstoy Bridge in the city centre, one can catch glimpses of such broken dreams.

Here, Bishkek’s unemployed come to find piecework for a couple of hours, or, if they’re lucky, for a whole day.

Anara Nooruzbekova, a 42-year-old mother of four from Issyk-Kul region in eastern Kyrgyzstan, has been standing on the bridge for the past seven years.

Every day she waits for work – any work – which pays her an average of 200 Kyrgyzstani soms (US$4).

Originally a confectioner, she accepts any job she can get: cleaning, construction, cooking and housekeeping.

By the side of the road, cars stop now and then looking for cheap labour.

For Anara, like for most of her “colleagues” nearby, this informal and highly vulnerable form of employment has become a permanent way of life.


Tackling a widespread problem

According to the Ministry of Labour, Migration and Youth, there are 210,400 officially registered unemployed workers in the country, out of a population of nearly six million.

But analysts believe the real figure is much higher.

The highest level of unemployment is in Bishkek, with a rate reaching 8.7 per cent.

Among those without work, almost half are young adults.

In an effort to tackle this growing issue, the Ministry has recently developed a special service to help citizens find jobs.

In all, four such offices can be found in the capital alone.

During the first half of 2014, this official employment service registered 9,921 job vacancies, but this is not enough to meet the demand.

On average, one offer is claimed by 14 people, despite the fact that many of these vacancies, such as porters or wheelbarrow pushers, involve hard work and very low salaries.

On the bridge, news of an employment service brings surprise, sometimes laughs.

“An official labour exchange? Where is it? No, this is just fiction. There is no work,” smirks Nikolay Kolynev, a failed entrepreneur.

“Some days I can earn up to 2,000 Kyrgyzstani soms (US$37). Sure, it is hard, but what else can I do? I want to eat, so I have to work. And you see, this place is illegal; we have to pay informal taxes to police officers in order to stay here and find a job for the day.”

According to the national statistics committee of Kyrgyzstan, the minimum cost of living for October 2014 is 5,071 Kyrgyzstani soms (US$86), almost twice the average monthly income of Nikolay.

Low wages are one of the main reasons why a quarter of the Kyrgyz population aged 18 to 40 is considering going abroad, joining the 1.2 million Kyrgyz – or 35 per cent of the population – who have already left the country. The vast majority end up in Russia and Kazakhstan, but many Kyrgyz workers also migrate to Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Korea and the United States.

Potential migrant workers often use the services of recruitment agencies in Bishkek advertising jobs as domestic workers and nannies. But these jobs usually have no contracts, and workers pay no taxes or social security contributions.

During a conference on unemployment held earlier this year, the reasons for growth of unemployment in Kyrgyzstan were listed as follows: the delay in political stabilisation; the lack of anti-corruption measures; and poor management of economic resources.

A Kyrgyz Member of Parliament, present at the conference, also stated that: “For entrepreneurs, who can create jobs, we should start a system of tax cuts. This will also push employers to reveal the real number of workers, and to legalize all of the job offers.”

But until then, many see the informal economy as their only solution, depriving them of a stable tomorrow.