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Almaty success! Agro-industrial Workers’ Union organises migrant agricultural workers

In 2009, 316 migrant workers, 143 of them women joined the Agro-industrial Workers’ Union (AWU) of Almaty (Kazakhstan).  46 workers of those who joined the AWU Almaty in 2008 returned in 2009 to work for the same employers. In 2009, 27 trade union groups of migrant workers were established in 15 villages and 7 of the 27 group leaders were women.

These are the impressive results reported to a workshop recently held in Almaty to evaluate IUF's 2009 project on organising and defending the rights of migrant workers in agriculture.

Migrant workers in Almaty come from the neighbouring countries, mostly from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and some from Tajikistan. They work in tobacco, vines and vegetable growing.

The workshop also heard how in 2009 the government of Kazakhstan claimed that due to the economic crisis it could not set quotas for migrant workers in agricultural sector, i.e. migrants could not obtain legal permission to work.  However, the farmers continued to employ migrants due to lack of local workforce in the sector. The government policy did not allow farmers to employ officially migrant workers and did not allow the migrant workers to register officially their status; but it did not deprive them of their labour rights. The agricultural unions of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan continued their work organising and defending the rights of migrant workers in agriculture, work which they have been doing since 2007.

AWU Almaty region organised seminars in 6 districts for migrants’ group leaders with the participation of representatives of local authorities, the migration office and AWU, Kyrgyzstan. The seminars discussed the issues migrant workers face, including migrant child labour, as many workers migrate with the whole families and their children end up working with them in the fields. The union informed migrant workers about their labour rights in Kazakhstan and the right of their children to attend local schools. It also explained how to sign agreements with employers and explained to the local authority representatives and migration office staff about the need to regulate migrant’s employment in agricultural sector. Information about the union’s work and seminars has been published in local newspapers.

Many migrants, even those who work in sectors other than agriculture, contact the agricultural union through relatives and friends.  In June 2009, 20 migrants from Kyrgyzstan contacted the union and asked for help to return home.  They had been working since April 2009 at a brick plant and could not return home to their country, because the employer was keeping their passports and had not paid them for their work. After the union representative met with the director of the plant, all migrant workers got their documents and received their wages.  The union also explained to them how to extend their expired guest visas in order to leave the country without facing migration problems.

The union, together with the Consulate of Kyrgyzstan in Kazakhstan helped recover the documents for eight members, who had worked for a number of years on the territory of Kazakhstan and could not return home because they were holders of old invalid passports or just a birth certificate.

In defending the rights of migrant workers the trade union paid attention not only to working but also to living conditions.  In the village of Malybay, a migrant family lived in the employer’s courtyard under the shelter where tobacco leaves were dried, protected only by pieces of cardboard. The local AWU representative met with the employer and the migrant family was moved to an empty house on the neighbouring street.

The participants of the meeting also made a work plan for 2010.  They set a goal of organising at least 400 migrant workers, to cover more villages than in 2009 with organising and seminars, and continue working on elimination of child labour in co-operation with ILO/IPEC local office.

Report By Svetlana Boincean, IUF Moscow office

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