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Moonlight Madness: For Clues To How Well Kazakhstan Is Managing Wages, Just Ask Its Civil Servants

The World Bank noted that Kazakhstan's public-wage bill was among the lowest in Europe and Central Asia.
The World Bank noted that Kazakhstan's public-wage bill was among the lowest in Europe and Central Asia.

For civil servant Nurzhan Sadirbekuly, a pay raise couldn't come soon enough. "Couldn't" as in it's too late.

In more than a decade of work at a government agency in southern Kazakhstan, the 36-year-old father of two young children says he has seen colleagues try just about anything to make ends meet.

They frequently seek outside income or even second jobs, something he says his 9-to-5 workday makes virtually impossible.

"To try to supplement their incomes, some civil servants sell goods online or sell cosmetics, [and] others sell clothes," Sadirbekuly tells RFE/RL's Kazakh Service.

Other colleagues bring in village honey or vegetables to sell at work. "[It] looks like a bazaar" in the office on some days, he says, with clothes or agricultural goods spread across desks and colleagues haggling for bargains that might be paid in the form of IOUs.

So earlier this year -- whether despite or in part because of a monthly pay raise of a meager 500 tenges ($1.50) -- he decided to quit his public-sector job.

Instead, he says, he'll find work at a real bazaar, one of the crowded marketplaces that dot so many of this region's communities. He hopes to do better than the $160-180 a month that he and his colleagues make against a national average wage of around $450.

Help Coming?

The World Bank noted five years ago that Kazakhstan's public-wage bill -- its expenditure on government employment -- was among the lowest in Europe and Central Asia at around 4 percent of GDP. And there is little publicly available evidence to suggest that its public-sector wage earners have since recovered or even kept pace with overall economic growth or total expenditures.

Schoolteachers cut grass along the road in the village of Uzynagsh near Almaty.
Schoolteachers cut grass along the road in the village of Uzynagsh near Almaty.

But state wage employees aren't alone in their frustration at gaps in Central Asia's richest economy, which boasts the world's 12th-largest oil reserves, major natural-gas reservoirs, and vast amounts of arable land.

Even the government, which maintains a firm grip on the economy, has signaled an awareness of a problem among its lowest wage earners.

Five months before his surprise resignation from the presidency in March, longtime leader Nursultan Nazarbaev announced that he had ordered officials to raise the minimum wage across the board in 2019.

He pledged at the time that the move -- from $75 a month to around $110 a month, or around 50 percent -- "will be a tangible benefit to every Kazakh citizen."

His handpicked successor, interim President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, has even homed in on public-sector employees.

Within three days of taking office, Toqaev tweeted that he had "ordered the government to move the wage increases for low-paid state workers up from July 1 to June 1, 2019." The resulting pay hike will "directly affect the lives of more than a million civil and state employees," he added.

Again on April 15, Toqaev said that "more than 1 million low-paid public-sector villages, rural districts, and provinces will see their salaries increased starting June 1, 2019."

Timur Suleymanov, a former economy minister who is currently an adviser to the interim president, has acknowledged a link between recent efforts to boost wages and years of "stagnant" wages that meant that "while the economy was growing, people's incomes weren't."

A cleaning woman at an Almaty area school who wishes to remain anonymous says her projected $120 monthly salary after the promised minimum-wage hike still won't be enough to feed her family of six. She already supplements her income by selling fresh milk to co-workers and neighbors, she says.

A 40-year-old teacher at the same school says he makes around half of the official monthly salary despite working a second job lecturing at a nearby vocational college. His income covers foodstuffs and little else, he says.

Recent statistics suggest that Kazakhs spend some 46 percent of their household incomes on groceries, and only 1.9 percent for leisure and culture.

"It's not that we're not cultured," says a retired journalist in Almaty, "many people just don't make enough money to spend on anything beyond their basic needs."

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