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'Pay Is Much Better': Thousands Of Migrant Workers From Oil-Rich Kazakhstan Going To South Korea For Jobs

Baqtybai Qozhakhmetov left his village of Taldybulaq in southeastern Kazakhstan five years ago to be a migrant worker in South Korea to provide for his family.

Qozhakhmetov, 35, says he sends home some $2,570 a month, considerably higher than the average monthly salary of about $720 in the Central Asian country. With the money, his family has already bought a house and a car.

The rest of Qozhakhmetov's salary goes for rent, food, and his other living costs in South Korea. Qozhakhmetov says finding well-paid jobs has been easy for him in this country. But he admits that it has often been hard and physically demanding work.

Baqtybai Qozhakhmetov
Baqtybai Qozhakhmetov

"First I worked in construction, then I transported watermelons at a greenhouse," Qozhakhmetov said. "One of my recent odd jobs was carrying cement bags to the top of a mountain. They paid me about $150 for three hours of work."

Qozhakhmetov claims unskilled migrants workers like him can make between $100 and $320 a day in South Korea.

South Korea is one of most popular destinations for migrant workers from Kazakhstan, where poverty remains widespread despite the country's abundant energy resources.

Authorities in Seoul estimate there are at least 9,000 Kazakh citizens working illegally in South Korea. Others put the number at about 20,000. Many migrants say they have left Kazakhstan because of low wages.

An agreement signed between Astana and Seoul in 2014 allows Kazakh citizens to enter South Korea visa-free and stay in the country as a tourist for up to 30 days. Many have overstayed that period and illegally taken jobs in construction, agriculture, or the service industry, among others.

Many migrants who spoke to RFE/RL insisted they are happy with the relatively high wages they earn in South Korea. But they acknowledged that illegal migrants have no rights or legal protection and often fall victim to exploitation.

Qozhakhmetov says his brother, who went to South Korea with him in May 2018, was detained and deported by South Korean authorities just two weeks after his visa-free stay expired.

No Legal Protection

"Illegal migrant workers can't get medical insurance and, when they get injured, medical treatment is very expensive," said Lazzat Qurbanaliqyzy, a female migrant worker from Kazakhstan. "Some of them don't seek medical treatment when they get sick because it's too expensive [without insurance] and takes too much time."

Qurbanaliqyzy warns people to carefully study the realities of becoming illegal migrants before leaving Kazakhstan and not to get lured by misleading social media videos about making "easy money" in South Korea.

Lazzat Qurbanaliqyzy
Lazzat Qurbanaliqyzy

An engineering technologist by profession, Qurbanaliqyzy arrived in South Korea three years ago, leaving her prestigious but low-paid job as a university professor in the southern city of Taraz.

Qurbanaliqyzy said the driving force behind her decision was her miserable salary, which was "barely enough to make ends meet" in Kazakhstan.

The 52-year-old former professor now works in construction, doing manual labor.

Common Pitfalls

But finding work isn't always easy in South Korea, especially for women, she said.

"At first it was difficult for me here. I couldn't find any work in the first month," Qurbanaliqyzy told RFE/RL. "There were people who promised to help, but they deceived me instead. I often hear similar stories from other people, too."

There have been cases in which Kazakh workers were unable to claim their wages from South Korean employers who simply refused to pay their salaries after several months of work, taking advantage of the illegal migrants' vulnerable situation. Fearing jail or deportation, illegal workers won't complain to police.

Some workers and politicians have called on the government in Astana to try to secure an agreement with Seoul allowing Kazakhs to get legal work permits in South Korea.

In April, Ilyas Ispanov, then the acting chairman of the state Migration Committee, said South Korea had proposed that Kazakhstan join the Employment Permit System to tackle the growing problem of illegal labor migration from the Central Asian country.

The permit system is a program for low-skilled foreign laborers working in South Korea in sectors such as agriculture, construction, and manufacturing.

Abzal Smatulla
Abzal Smatulla

The Kazakh Labor Ministry told RFE/RL that negotiations are still under way between the two governments, though the countries have not yet reached an agreement.

In the meantime, thousands of Kazakhs continue working illegally in South Korea.

"The amount of money that I made in Kazakhstan in one month, I made just in four days in South Korea," said 27-year-old Abzal Smatulla.

A graduate of the Eurasian National University in Astana, Smatulla has worked as a welder and a gardener since he arrived in South Korea in 2019.

Smatulla said there are many university-educated Kazakhs -- such as doctors and teachers -- among the illegal workers in South Korea. Many of them plan to return to Kazakhstan at some point.

Smatulla said he plans to go back home in "about three years."

Written by Farangis Najibullah in Prague based on reporting by RFE/RL Kazakh Service correspondent Nurtai Berdazim
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