Working ‘from the soul’: moralizing wage labour in Kyrgyz transnational migration

Wednesday 14 April 2021

 Dr. Reeves is a senior lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester and Editor of Central Asian Survey. The seminar focused on her field work in the Southwest area of Kyrgyzstan, and illustrated the experience of a couple, identified with the names of Khairat and Albina, who previously lived in the region of Batken. 

Arianna Cerea is currently pursuing an MLitt degree in St Andrews’s Middle East, Caucasus, and Central Asia Security Studies program. She previously studied Arabic for International Relations at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore of Milan, while working as a journalist for a local newspaper. In this piece, Arianna wrote a report on Dr. Madeleine Reeves’ MECACS seminar presentation about moralizing wage labour in Kyrgyz Transnational Migration.

Source: Madeleine Reeves

The labor undertaken in Russia is considered physically demanding, socially draining and full of uncertainties. Despite these harsh conditions, the phenomenon of migration has been pivotal in all the Central Asian republics, and it dramatically increased in the 2000s, with the boom of the oil field. Among the Central Asian republics, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have become two of the most reliant states on remittances from migrant workers. Dr Reeves explained how migrants are forced to live in a state of legal and administrative indeterminacy: “You can never be sure of whether and when your documents will be completely in order”. However, working in Russia enables migrants to have projects for their future: any Russian wage is higher than a Kyrgyz one. Nevertheless, migrant workers suffer in a situation of unregulated work, with no protections for their contract or compensation in case of injury or death. This is a substantial difference from the previous Soviet system, where labor was institutionally protected. Through the voices of Khairat and Albina, Dr Reeves depicted “the practical strategies to get by” when you are a new migrant worker in Russia and exposed “what constitutes a meaningful and honest work” for these expatriates. 

Traditionally, in Central Asia, wage labor undertaken for the state implies a number of benefits, notably political membership and social approval. As a matter of fact, wage labor was the central pillar of the late Soviet social contract: “Intensive and collective labor creates binding relationship between self and the other; it produces a sense of value of the sacred which is felt to inhere in the site where the labor take place”. If the state is not able to provide wage labor, it fails. Nonetheless, the situation related to this social contract is more complicated in Kyrgyzstan: the moral value of labor is embedded into migration. For this reason, it is considered moral to find work abroad. In this case, when the migrant shows he is able to tolerate long working-hours, in places which usually Europeans or Russians find impossible, he will demonstrate his morality and strength, and his attitude to responsibility to the family or the community. 

Khairat and Albina are the perfect example of this reasoning. Albina left first for Russia, leaving her husband and her child in a rural region of Kyrgyzstan, Batken. The family entered into a debt after having shouldered the expenses for the funeral of Khairat’s brother, not to mention the costs of maintaining a family. Since the state’s salary was insufficient, the couple decided to move in Russia in 2005. Albina first worked as a maid for a Jewish family and then as a private gynecologist, while Khairat changed jobs several times. In his experience, gaining the trust of the boss is essential. After that, a work permit or Russian citizenship are not needed: “You can get by with any document if they trust you”. To prove how remunerative wage labor can be in Russia, Dr Reeves explained that her first interview with the couple took place the first time they came back to Batken after the Russian adventure. They were planning to build a new house there, separate from that of Khairat’s parents. Four years later, when Dr Reeves interviewed them again, they were buying a new house in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. As Khairat claimed, “A job can compensate its non-prestige, if it makes you earn enough”. He explained that the best positions are the one passed from hand to hand, among relatives or friends: “Positions as carrying bags, transporting furniture, storing packages have usually a plus, because they come with access to a basement-storage turned into dormitory, with shower and pirated access to internet”. In any case, it must be taken into account that for a migrant, the labor in Russia is still demanding, precarious, and involves many inequalities. Khairat confirmed that the beginning was hard, he was teased by his superiors and paid less than his Russian colleagues for the same job: “But the satisfaction of working in Russia comes from being able to work with a clean spirit and conscience”. Formally, migrants from Central Asian Republics should enjoy the same employment rights of Russian citizens, but in reality the working environment is extremely racist against minorities. 

For this reason, Khairat and Albina decided to obtain Russian passports: they thought it would help with authority checks and gaining better access to employment. The passport should have also granted equality of rights and payment, but the truth of the matter is different. In Albina’s opinion, “even having a registration in the Kremlin”, which is the center of the political power, “would be anyway insufficient to trump the categorical discrimination that hinge on ethnonational difference”. Therefore, ethnic discrimination is routinized in the working environment, and “racism and discrimination are legitimized by the discourses which describes illegal migration as a source of danger”. To conclude, the working life of migrants is never easy. At the beginning they have to be able assign a moral value to all the hardships they endure, which engenders hope of a better future. They also have to overcome racialized logics which are sometimes accepted by the community in Russia. As a matter of fact, Khairat and Albina took pride in their ability to transform the hostility and suspicion of their neighbors into respect and friendship. As a matter of fact, for many Kyrgyz, it is worthwhile to tolerate the unregulated work, the distance from family, the inequalities and injustices, especially if the moral value of working abroad makes your future more solid and stable.

Related topics

Share this story