The struggle for decent work in Kyrgyzstan’s garment sector


Of the 200,000 or so people working in Kyrgyzstan’s garment industry, not many work in factories like Larisa Fashions. A modern five-story building in the capital city of Bishkek, its bright and airy workspace speaks of the quality of the blouses and dresses it produces, mainly for export to Russia and Kazakhstan.

On the walls are staff training certificates, the air is temperature controlled, workers are given free meals and bonuses, and on the desks, plants and Kyrgyz flags take pride of place. Larisa Popkova, owner of the factory, says her staff is her priority. “My goal is for people to work in excellent conditions. Our workers are mostly women, mothers, with two, three, four children. It is important that they have decent conditions”.

Sadly, this is far from the norm. The garment industry is the largest employer of women in Kyrgyzstan, with the workforce between 70 and 90 per cent female. But in spite of the huge growth of the industry – according to official data, Kyrgyz garment exports saw an average growth rate of 29 per cent between 2001 and 2010 – many workers are condemned to low-paid and precarious jobs in informal workshops, or engage in unregulated and unprotected home-based work.

In contrast to Larisa Fashions is May 1st. Built in 1928, this cavernous factory in downtown Bishkek used to make clothes for women and children across the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Amongst its 2,000-strong workforce was, at one point, the famed “heroine of socialist labour”, Mykeh Sydykova, who was named the most productive worker in the whole of the USSR between 1981 and 1985. Today, the garment workers labour just as hard as their predecessors but the conditions are markedly different.

May 1st factory has now been sub-divided into dozens of poorly-lit, poorly-ventilated informal workshops, where workers earn as little as 3,000-4,000 Kyrgyz som [approximately US$45 to US$60] per week – less than the cost of living. The work is physically taxing and the jobs are order-based, so big orders can mean long 16-hour days and seven-day weeks. Conversely, no orders means no work.

“The spaces look like this because the renters [who are the bosses] do not want to invest in their workshop spaces. They want to maximise their profits,” says the chief technical inspector for the Kyrgyz Republic Textile Industry Trade Union, Almash Zharkynbaeva.

As a labour inspector, her primary responsibility is to monitor compliance of the Kyrgyz labour code, particularly in terms of occupational health and safety. “No labour contracts are signed [in the informal workshops]. A worker is just doing the job informally and has no idea about the conditions of his or her employment,” she tells Equal Times. “Their record of service is not taken into account so there is no social insurance contribution to their pension fund.”


Gender inequality

According to a 2012 report by the United Nations Development Programme, gender inequality in Kyrgyzstan is rife. “Unfair distribution of resources, patriarchal norms and values, reduced employment opportunities for women, [the] closure of kindergartens, childcare facilities and social support institutions, and a deterioration of medical services exacerbate this situation,” the report says.

That’s why so many women work in the garment industry. Despite the poor conditions for the major of workers, there are few other options. Although Kyrgyzstan has an official unemployment rate of 8.5 per cent, women are disproportionately affected by unemployment and informality.

Equal Times spoke to one woman who had trained as an accountant but because she couldn’t find any work, now works as a seamstress. “I have three children. I had to earn money from somewhere. At the start I was afraid but now I am happy, although this is very hard work”.

Despite a projected economic growth rate of 4.2 per cent for 2016, Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorest of the former Soviet republics, and improving the level of social protection is one of the government’s top priorities. Kyrgyzstan’s female garment workforce is particularly vulnerable – for example, ILO Convention 183 on maternity protection hasn’t been ratified so when women give birth it usually means they have no income.

In fact, there is no social protection floor in line with the standards set by ILO Convention 102 on social security, Recommendation 202 on social protection floors or Recommendation 204 on formalising the informal economy. A series of high-level technical meetings took place this February in Bishkek to come up with a framework for the necessary reforms, but change won’t happen overnight.

When the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991, so too did its garment and textile industry. Of the 7,000 factories which previously existed making garments, fabrics, leather, furs and yarns, only 300 were left standing. Many workers in the industry continued working from home – as a result, some observers consider the recent post-Communist ‘rebirth’ of the garment industry (there are very few textile factories left; these days most of the fabrics come from China) as little more than a ‘reorganisation’ of the workforce.

Rysgul Babaeva, chairperson of the Kyrgyz Republic Textile Industry Trade Union, has worked in the industry for over 30 years. She tells Equal Times: “In 2005, when our government realised the scale of the garment industry, they introduced a patent system – an operational license for self-employed workers, which is what all garment workers are. The patent offers preferential taxes, small tax liabilities and social insurance. But there is an issue here, voiced only by the unions: by paying the smallest possible amount to the social security fund, the workers do not think about their future pensions. The funded component of the pension in turn is very low”.

A recent study published by the Harvard Business School describes Kyrgyzstan’s complicated tax regime as a “barrier to formalization” for the garment industry because the current tax system favours micro and small enterprises, and discourages businesses from growing.

But to improve the livelihoods of all of Kyrgyzstan’s garment workers, Babeva says there is one clear priority for her union. “We must organise”. Only about 30,000 garment workers are trade union members in the country. “They come from rural areas, so they know nothing about unions. But we raise their awareness: we go to the workshops and distribute materials, posters, calendars.”

The uninitiated quickly see past the well-designed stationery to understand the tangible benefits of union membership. “In those enterprises where unions are present, the labour code is respected, including the Health and Safety at Work Law. But in the absence of unions, employees are not protected.” Babeva says she knows 30,000 people is only a “small share” of the potential trade union membership, “but we are working on it daily.”

Visit to watch our short documentary ‘Made in Kyrgyzstan’.