The Labor Train: Following the Migrant Workers of Tajikistan

Kazansky Station

Passengers arriving at Kazansky Station in Moscow. Image by George Butler. Russia, 2016.

Aboard the train

The passengers, all Tajikistani, almost all male and under 50, settle into their four-day journey to Moscow. A few hours later, at the Uzbekistan border, aggressive immigration checks interrupt any rest. Uzbekistani guards roam the train dismantling everything with screwdrivers, searching compartments, light fittings, inside handrails and window frames. They are looking for narcotics or contraband, but this is an unnecessary exercise of power – the train is not even scheduled to stop in the country. The conductors complain that the destruction costs the train company money. The passengers, who will not even be allowed off the train until they reach Kazakhstan, two days later, are resigned. Protesting achieves nothing. Image by George Butler. Tajikistan, 2016.

Cement factory

A cement factory in rural Tajikistan: After the fall of the Soviet Union came the Tajikistani civil war, a brutal ethnic conflict that began in 1992 and ended in 1997. In that time, factories such as this one–which produced asphalt used to make roads–fell into ruins. Without these companies and the jobs they provided, unemployment spiked, forcing people to look elsewhere for work. Now, children play in the building’s rusted shell, racing around its edges and using the conveyor belt as a slide. Image by George Butler. Tajikistan, 2016.

Sheep and goats

Wali looks after the herd. Two weeks ago, the 25-year-old returned from Moscow, where he had worked as a vendor in Sadovod, a vast covered market on the outskirts the city. His brother worked on the stall next to him, but he left because he was homesick. In the spring, Wali plans to go back to Moscow again. Image by George Butler. Tajikistan, 2016.


In Tajikistan, Osman is a doctor. In Russia, he looks after a toilet in Sadovod. Tajikistani migrants fill every conceivable role on the market: porters, vendors, bathroom attendants, waiters. For 16 hours a day, Osman collects the small fee that people pay to use the toilet. He earns the equivalent of £390 a month–much more than he made as a doctor in Tajikistan. “I walk around the market for two hours every night, so that my blood can go around,” he tells me. Osman lives in his post by the toilet and has only left this area of the market twice–once at New Year, and once to go to the Ukrainian border to renew his visa. He will have to pay £60 every three months to make this trip: seven hours there, seven hours back, in a taxi or minibus, just to cross and then recross the border. Image by George Butler. Russia, 2016.

vocational training for Tajikistani workers

When it is finished, this building will offer vocational training for Tajikistani workers. The qualifications they will earn there will hopefully allow them to find well-paid work, either in Tajikistan or Russia. Sultansho, who manages the guards at this massive site, is proud of the building–and the work going into it. “No, the men working here didn’t learn how to build in Russia,” he says. “It’s the opposite: they went to Russia to help them to build.”

Still, Sultansho’s own CV speaks to the challenges of finding a decent job in Tajikistan. He has three degrees, including one from a medical college, but makes his living here. “We hope that the effects of this building will even reach us one day,” he says. Image by George Butler. Tajikistan, 2016.

Dushanbe Gate - journeys punctuated by police stops

One of the gates and checkpoints that welcome people into the capital of Tajikistan. Journeys in the country are often punctuated by police stops, which usually end with the driver handing over a fine to the officers for unknown offenses. Image by George Butler. Tajikistan, 2016.

The twice-weekly train ride from Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, to Moscow takes four days and traverses the whole of Central Asia. Tajikistan depends on labour migration more than any other country in the world, and these carriages are full of migrants–nearly all of them men, traveling to Russia for work. They chat about the employment they might find, the state of the Russian economy, the harassment by Russian police that they are almost certain to face. Some talk about Islam, while others, now old hands at this journey, sit quietly, sleep when they can, and wait.

For this project, we spent three weeks documenting the realities of rural Tajikistan, the journey to Russia, and the situations the migrants find themselves in when they finally arrive. In the past year, global oil prices have fallen and the Russian economy has suffered. New visa regulations have also suddenly made many migrants vulnerable to deportation. For the men on the train, their new lives will be precarious and filled with menace, but at least there is the chance of a job…

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