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Living in an ‘enemy land’: the Armenian women working abroad

16 April 2018
Yerevan bus station (Armine Avetisyan /OC Media)

Low pay and high unemployment have led many Armenian women to seek work beyond the country’s borders. Despite fears of trafficking, often abusive working conditions, and a closed border with Turkey, the allure of higher salaries have led thousands to leave Armenia, mainly to Russia and even Turkey — a country many consider an ‘enemy land’.

From a hospital to a sock factory

Sixty-year-old Anna Hovhannisyan (not her real name) has been working as a nurse for more than three decades in hospitals in Gyumri, in northwestern Armenia. After her husband died 10 years ago, the burden of supporting her family lay entirely on her shoulders.

‘I have two children. After my husband’s death, I was the only one earning money in our family. At first, we lived normally. Then, when all our savings ran out, I took a loan from the bank, hoping I would soon find a job; my children would help, and we would repay the loan. But we failed. We ended up buried in debts’, Anna tells OC Media.

Over the years, the interest on the loan built up, and it grew to become a huge financial burden. In order to repay it, Anna quit her job in Armenia to leave to work abroad.

‘At that time, I earned around $100 a month working part-time. I couldn’t find a better-paid job and started looking abroad. At first, I searched newspaper advertisements and websites, but I was afraid to apply because I was afraid of being trafficked. I told many people around me about my plans, and one friend advised me to go to Naginsk [near Moscow], to her acquaintance, who had been working there for many years’, Anna says.

[Read on OC Media: The Armenian women tricked into sex slavery]

After speaking by phone with the director of the factory in Naginsk, Anna agreed to take the job and left for Russia.

‘Four years ago, I started working at the sock factory. I did the labelling. For my hands, which were used to administering injections and helping patients, it was an unusual job. But I put up with it; I earned money to pay my debts. Every month I received about $400, of which $300 I sent to Armenia’, Anna recalls.

An unusual regime

Anna worked from eight in the morning till eight in the evening. The factory’s workforce of around 150 people was mostly made up of Armenians and Tajiks.

‘The youngest Armenian was an 18-year-old girl. From Armenia, it was mostly mothers, daughters, or sisters coming. Spouses were not allowed to work together. The main physical work was done by the Tajiks, young men and teenage boys. We lived five people to a room in a free shelter provided by the factory, which was attached to it. The toilet and kitchen were communal. We were able to go to the city only on Sundays; on other days, this was forbidden. If there was an urgent reason to go out, we had to obtain special permission from the directorate.’

The factory signs a one-year employment contract with employees. According to Anna, the contract said employees had no right to quit during that year. After the end of the year, a new agreement is signed if both sides agree. Anna’s last employment contract was completed in December 2017. She didn’t sign a new contract and returned to Armenia.

Job seekers abroad

In August 2017, 90,300 people were registered as job seekers in the regional centres of the State Employment Agency, a decrease of 6% compared to the same period last year. 58,800 of these job seekers were women.

According to official statistics, in January–February 2017, the northwestern Shirak Province had the highest number of unemployed people, 28,600, followed by the capital Yerevan with 24,900. In third place was the northern Lori Province, with 20,100 people.

There are official statistics on both migration and unemployment, but there is no clear data as to whether or not unemployed people leave the country more often than others, or how many unemployed people have already left to work abroad.

Anecdotal evidence suggests the most popular destinations for Armenian women seeking work abroad are Russia and Turkey.

Working in an ‘enemy land’

Armenia and Turkey have no diplomatic relations, and the border between them is closed. Relations between the two countries remain tense due to Turkey’s support of Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and the country’s refusal to recognise the 1915 massacres of Armenians as genocide. Both societies foster a lot of prejudice against the other.

‘About 10 years ago, I decided I should engage in trade. I borrowed money and went to Turkey to buy clothes and sell them in Armenia. There are many people around where I live who have earned money that way, so I decided to try my luck’, 45-year-old Lusine, a resident of Talin, 70 km west of Yerevan, tells OC Media.

In 1998, Lusine began to visit Turkey regularly, making small trades. After travelling there for two years, she made friends with a Turkish woman, a merchant, who in 2000 offered her the chance to move to Istanbul and work as a manager in her shop.

‘We became close friends. Many times I brought goods from her on credit, and owed her large amounts of money, which I would then send back to her. Or I would send money and she would send goods to me. We trusted each other a lot. Eight years ago, she called me unexpectedly and said she was expanding the store and needed a manager. It had to be an Armenian from Armenia, mainly to work with Armenians, and someone who she could trust. I still live there to this day, occasionally coming and going’, says Lusine. She says she doesn’t feel bad being in Istanbul; she earns a high salary and lives a more prosperous life than she lived in Armenia.

‘But there are not so many lucky people like me among the Armenian women who come to Turkey. They usually do any kind of work to make ends meet.’

According to the Armenian women in Turkey who spoke with OC Media, it is mostly middle-aged women who go to work in Turkey, the most popular destination being Istanbul, with some also in Trabzon, İzmir, and Antalya.

Though there are regular flights between Yerevan and Istanbul, many go by bus. Given that the Armenian–Turkish border is closed, busses must first travel to Georgia, crossing into Turkey from there. One way costs around $50. The journey from Yerevan to Istanbul can take up to 40 hours.

Fifty-eight-year-old Lida (not her real name) has travelled to Turkey for work for over 10 years.

‘At first, I went to Russia because I was scared to go to Turkey, as we do not have any diplomatic relations with the country. But in Russia, I clarified many things with my colleagues, and discovered that if I did the same job there, I would be paid at least 50% more. They need people of my profession, and now I have decided to go there. People with my profession find it especially easy to find a high-paid job’, Lida tells OC Media.

‘We Armenians look after sick people there, take care of them, and clean their flats. I work in a Greek family on the island of Kınalıada, adjacent to Istanbul. They have a luxurious villa there. I’m responsible for cleaning the entire house’, Lida says.

Kınalıada (Armine Avetisyan /OC Media)

‘I earn more than $1,000 a month. The woman I work for is very kind. She also gives me presents. She knows that I have a daughter and grandchildren in Armenia and buys gifts for them as well. There are many Armenian workers on the island. We are trusted here, they say we do a clean job and have clean hands [don’t steal]’, Lida says.

In Armenia, Lida lived in the Shirak Province.

‘I’m a foreigner in the land of the enemy. Although they treat me well — the hostility is in the past — I feel bad, as I am just a servant. I rent a house in the Asian side of Istanbul. Every morning, I wake up at five to go to work. I change public transport a a few times, reach the ferry, and sail up to go to the island. I should be at work by eight. I finish my working day at around 7 pm and return again the same way. Some live in the flats of the families they work for, so they don’t have to come and go back. But I get additional money for travel expenses’, says Lida. She says that depending on the type of work, Armenians can earn from $500 to $2,000 in Turkey.

‘It’s difficult to come here with children, there are problems with schooling, but some Armenians bring their children to work with them. They mainly do shady work, working in hidden places’, Lida says. She is uncomfortable talking on the topic, and changes the subject.

Lida says the lack of knowledge of Turkish language is not a problem for Armenians, and as the language is accessible, they tend to quickly master it. She also says there are no interethnic issues.

Lida returned to Armenia for the winter holidays but has agreed to return in two months. She says she has got used to her life in Turkey..

Since speaking with OC Media, Anna Hovhannisyan received a high-paying job in Armenia, and is no longer planning to leave to work abroad.

This article was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Regional Office in the South Caucasus. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and may not necessarily reflect the views of FES.

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