After entering as tourists, my host brothers obtained a multiple-entry resident visa, valid for a period of three years, which allows them to work with few restrictions, and benefit from some social protection schemes. To date, Tajik citizens without a Russian passport cannot enter South Korea easily, and must instead apply for a tourist, work or business visa.
Like many others, my two host brothers had first heard about South Korea on the internet. Information on citizenship constantly circulates online, such as in this video by Migrant’s Voice, a Tajik NGO providing support to migrant labourers, in which a Tajik labourer in South Korea addresses his fellow countrymen in front of the camera: “Hello to all Tajik people. If you are coming to Korea, welcome, come! There is work for all! Don’t think that there is no work. In Korea there is work everywhere, any kind of work. The work is heavy. But the money, the money is good.”
Average wages tend to be higher in South Korea than in Russia. My host brothers earn between $80-100 per day in the construction sector, paid in cash on the spot.
As one of them explained, there are no Central Asian intermediaries or other complex labour recruitment networks involved on the work site, as in Russia. The two men work hard and regularly receive phone calls from their father, mother and sisters with urgent requests for money. At the same time, they enjoy less parental and state control, as well as the relatively better living and working conditions of South Korea. When a metal construction recently fell on the eldest brother, fracturing his legs, his employer provided full healthcare coverage, while an older Korean lady looked after him for several weeks. The two brothers’ hard work is reflected in the improved living standards of their close relatives in Tajikistan. In preparation for the oldest son’s return, their father built an eye-catching two-storey ‘European style’ house in the middle of the village among Tajik-style loam-built homes.
As a result of dual citizenship, figures on international mobility and travel, including labour migration and resettlement, do not necessarily reflect people’s place of birth.
For instance, according to a recent report by the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, the South Korean government issued a total of 102 work visas to Tajik citizens between 2016 and 2019. It is impossible to assess to what extent these figures are accurate, but they seem to be at least slightly underestimated. While one Tajik labour migrant in South Korea told me that around 60 to 70 Tajik people work in his company alone, another claimed that there are not that many Tajik people in South Korea, as the country remains difficult to enter. In the capital city of Seoul, he estimated, there would not be more than 100 Tajiks.
Russia: a love-hate relationship
While labour migration from Tajikistan to South Korea is a relatively new phenomenon, labour migration to Russia has become crucial for the Tajik economy since the breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1991.
According to data from Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, more than 1.1 million Tajiks entered Russia for work in 2019, a figure that excludes people who entered illegally or informally, without registering for work. Labour migration to Russia has come to be seen by many in Tajik society as part of a man’s social becoming. “My two boys [who haven’t reached school age yet] will study and then work in Russia,” a young Tajik mother recently told me. There is little doubt in her mind that her household will develop via the accepted routine of labour migration to Russia.