ALMATY -- Migrant workers from Central Asia are increasingly moving to Kazakhstan because authorities there are providing increasing work opportunities, strengthening co-operation among the region's countries, and creating a "brotherly" environment.
This stands in stark contrast with the situation in Russia, where the economic downtown has lowered wages, and where migrant workers are regularly subjected to racist and xenophobic treatment from locals and extortion from Russian civil servants and police.
Kazakhstan is preparing to liberalise rules for migrants even more, according to a December 2 report by Fergana News. A Kazakh Foreign Ministry discussion group suggested eliminating permit requirements for migrants from countries that share a visa-free regime with Kazakhstan. All Central Asian countries are part of that regime.
Helping small businesses
The proposed reform would apply to migrants seeking work at small businesses.
The idea is still embryonic, and proponents have not suggested what regulations on inflow of migrant workers would replace the permit requirements.
The International Legal Initiative (ILI), an Almaty NGO, expressed its support.
"Currently migrant workers without a permit may be hired only as domestic workers, and in other cases, the employer must obtain a permit to hire foreign workers within an annual quota," said Aina Shormanbayeva of the ILI, according to Fergana News.
"As a result, many work without employment contracts, and when there is no contract, there are no rights," she said.
The ILI has recommended simplifying job placement for migrant workers in Kazakhstan, and the Migration Service Committee of the Interior Ministry has asserted that "the recommendation has essentially been implemented", according to Shormanbayeva.
"If parliament accepts the proposals of the Interior Ministry, then small businesses in the country will be able to legally hire citizens of Uzbekistan or Tajikistan," she said.
"This will help to avoid violations of migrant workers' rights, and also replenish the budget with taxes. We urge members of parliament to support these amendments and give a million people the opportunity to work legally," Shormanbayeva said.
Kazakhstan instead of Russia
The changes in Kazakhstan come as labour migration to Russia continues to dip.
The number of Uzbeks going to Russia to work fell from more than 1 million in 2014 to about 852,000 in 2018, according to the statistical website UzAnalytics.
Meanwhile, the number of Uzbeks entering Kazakhstan skyrocketed from 468,441 in 2016 to more than 3 million in 2018.
Not all of those Uzbeks were seeking work, but the amount of money remitted from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan increased by 28% in 2018 compared to 2017.
Migrant workers in Kazakhstan mainly work in construction, home repair, services, retail and agriculture. Because so many work informally, no good estimate of their number is available.
Uzbeks are not the only Central Asians turning to Kazakhstan.
Kyrgyz migrant workers in recent years have been choosing Kazakhstan, said Bishkek economist Elmira Suranchiyeva, citing Kazakhstan's steady demand for labour.
"This is especially true for the construction sector, which has found a second wind with the launch of new state-subsidised mortgage programmes," she added.
Kazakhstan has more favourable working conditions than does Russia for migrants from Kyrgyzstan, who are "considered brothers" in Kazakhstan, and the relatively stable economy makes it possible to plan for the future, she said.
Russian statistics confirm the decline in number of migrant workers coming to russia.
On September 19, the official newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta (RG) reported that the influx of migrants in 2018 was the smallest in post-Soviet history -- despite the acute need for labour.
"According to experts at the Institute of Social Analysis and Forecasting of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), the number of people who came to Russia in 2018 decreased by 4% compared to 2017, and the number who left the country increased by 16.9%," reported RG.
The number of registered migrants had decreased by one third, while the number of permits issued had decreased by almost half, added RG, comparing 2018 to 2017.
Corruption, extortion, xenophobia
Factors behind Russia's loss of popularity as a destination for migrant workeres include its stagnating economy, weakening ruble and consequent decrease in wages.
Another important reason is xenophobic sentiment among Russians in relation to migrants from Central Asia.
Migrant workers in Russia encounter extortion not only from police but also from the immigration agency and all other government agencies involved in their lives.
Umid Makhmudov, 34, of Samarkand, Uzbekistan, arrived in Almaty two years ago and works in construction there. He chose Kazakhstan after working less than a year in Russia.
"The local police hounded me," Makhmudov said. "They constantly checked my documents and found fault with me, so I would pay them off with a bribe."
He is much more comfortable in Kazakhstan than in Russia, he said, adding he earns almost as much as he did in Moscow.
Labour migration provides ample opportunity for corrupt civil servants to enrich themselves, said Vyacheslav Postavnin, director of the Russian NGO Migration XXI Century, as quoted by Deutsche Welle in September.
"The Russian Interior Ministry has its own directorate for internal affairs, which deals with corruption in Russian agencies associated with labour migration," said Postavnin.
Corruption in those agencies "has always been there and remains very high", he said. "Criminal cases come in a steady stream."
The Russian regime is not keeping its own word with Uzbekistan, added Postavnin, a former deputy director of the Russian Federal Migration Service.
Though the Kremlin concluded a pact with Uzbekistan to organise the intake of migrant workers, it "has taken virtually no measures to create the mechanisms for working with them [migrants]", said Postavnin.