2. Improving the activation of skills of vulnerable populations in Kazakhstan

In a matter of months, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic turned from a public health crisis into a major economic and jobs crisis; it is expected to cast a long shadow over the world’s economies. Before the pandemic, previous OECD work underscored the importance for policy makers in Kazakhstan to factor in the challenge of skills activation as a tool to support the development of solid career paths and to strengthen job quality. Labour informality is widespread in Kazakhstan, and the labour market remains unequal, with sizeable regional disparities, and a very large share of low-paid jobs (OECD, 2017[1]). The benefits of skills activation can be particularly important for vulnerable populations: by helping youth find their way in the world of work, for example; by creating the conditions for fostering the labour market participation of older workers; and by supporting the inclusion of people with disabilities in the labour market and society.

There are reasons to expect that the gains of well-performing skills activation are potentially sizeable. Vulnerable workers are often low-skilled, which implies that they face a higher risk of being employed in the informal sector with few labour rights, limited social protection and poor working conditions. In addition, the important social and economic costs of them remaining trapped in long-term unemployment include the permanent loss of human capital, increased financial hardship, the erosion of self-confidence and ill-health conditions. Finely tuned activation policies can play an important role in limiting these costs.

The severe consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on employment have made implementing effective and well-targeted skills activation policies an even more urgent priority. Many firms around the world are struggling to stay afloat, and large numbers of workers are being laid off. Those working in non-standard jobs, often at a low-income (e.g. self-employed workers, temporary or part-time workers), are paying the highest price, since these jobs are over-represented in the sectors most affected by the pandemic (OECD, 2020[2]). Public employment services (PES) have played a critical role in implementing skills activation policies which reduce the risk that laid-off workers fall into long-term unemployment and support, in turn, an incipient recovery.

This chapter starts with an overview of skills activation policies and programmes in Kazakhstan. The next section describes how PES, active labour market programmes (ALMPs) and family policies are organised and delivered; identifies the key actors and their responsibilities; and assesses the performance of PES and ALMPs. The subsequent section presents a detailed assessment of the identified opportunities and sets out tailor-made policy recommendations to support the employability of vulnerable populations in Kazakhstan.

In Kazakhstan, the PES system was created in April 1991 and has since undergone several reforms. The employment units, originally funded and co-ordinated by the regional districts (akimats), have been suppressed. Their activities have been transferred to the employment centres, which respond to the central government and now play a central role in the delivery of employment services.

The employment centres play a pivotal role in the activation of skills by involving jobseekers in productive employment and enabling rapid job placements. Their functions include providing career guidance and job-matching services, delivering short-term vocational training and organising public work and job fairs. The priority objective of the centres is the activation of jobseekers from vulnerable populations, particularly youth, the low-skilled and people with disabilities, which are the groups at the highest risk of poverty and exclusion from the labour market in Kazakhstan. In addition, the employment centres support young women re-accessing the labour market after several years of absence from the labour market due to childcare responsibilities. The centres also provide targeted social assistance to the unemployed and low-income-level citizens, refugees and foreigners permanently residing in Kazakhstan.

Currently, there are about 203 employment centres in Kazakhstan, covering most of the country. In addition, since September 2019, 30 mobile employment centres have been launched to reach out to people more proactively. The mobile centres tend to stop in busy public places with high pedestrian traffic, such as markets, railway stations and shopping centres. They target rural areas and the peripheries of large cities, where informal jobs are more highly concentrated.

The job vacancy bank within Kazakhstan’s PES has improved substantially in recent years. This reflects the launch of the Enbek digital platform, which includes the Electronic Labor Exchange, an integrated database to monitor and disseminate job vacancies at the local level. The Electronic Labor Exchange has benefited from collaboration with other popular online job platforms and private employment agencies. As of April 2020, there were 23 773 vacancies and 152 458 registered jobseeker resumés (CVs) available in the Electronic Labor Exchange.

ALMPs encourage greater labour market participation and better employment among all groups in society, with a special focus on the most disadvantaged. Kazakhstan’s history of ALMPs is relatively short. The first large-scale programmes were introduced in 2011 with the implementation of the Employment Roadmap 2020, which aims to help vulnerable groups access quality, more secure and productive employment (OECD, 2017[1]). Recently, the roadmap has been integrated into the new State Programme of Productive Employment and Mass Entrepreneurship Development 2017-2021 (Enbek).

The Ministry of Labour and Social Protection of Populations (MLSPP) and the Workforce Development Center (WDC) are responsible for policy design, for setting priorities and overseeing the implementation of ALMPs by the local authorities. Local implementation efforts are financed through a transfer from the national budget. The amount of the transfer is proportional to the size of the local active populations but is often adjusted to reflect specific regional development priorities. Direct job creation and start-up incentives programmes account for about 70% of ALMP expenditure. In 2019, employment incentives and training programmes had the largest number of participants, followed by direct job creation mainly using public works.

Affordable and quality early childhood education and care (ECEC) provide an important complement to the role played by direct skills activation policies. This is due to their positive role in supporting young parents in their efforts to better balance family and work responsibilities and easing the return of mothers to employment after childbearing. Preschool education in Kazakhstan is provided by state kindergartens, private kindergartens and mini-centres. These three institutions are under the supervision of local education authorities, which follow guidance from the Ministry of Education and Science (MOES).

Parental leave systems also support skills activation policies, and usually consist of maternity leave, paternity leave, and parental leave. Maternity leave is employment-protected leave of absence for employed women directly around the time of childbirth, paternity leave is employment-protected leave of absence for employed fathers at or in the first few months after childbirth, and parental leave is employment-protected leave of absence for employed parents, which is often supplementary to specific maternity and paternity leave periods, and frequently, but not in all countries, follows the period of maternity leave (OECD, 2019[3]).

In Kazakhstan, all employed mothers have access to maternity leave regardless of employment history. The time spent on maternity leave and childcare counts as work experience. Maternity leave is 126 days (70 days before and 56 days after the birth) and can be extended to up to 140 days (12 additional days after the birth) in cases of multiple births or for health reasons. Pay during maternity leave is equal to the average monthly wage for the past 12 months. For unemployed women, the maternity leave payment is based on the minimum wage and the number of children in the family.

There is no paternity leave in Kazakhstan, which significantly discourages parents from playing an equal role in work and family life. Accordingly, caring for children around childbirth remains primarily the responsibility of mothers, which discourages female participation in the labour market.

Parental leave lasts up to one year in Kazakhstan and can be taken by either mothers or fathers. The amount of the payment equals 40% of the average wage of the past 24 months but cannot exceed an amount equal to seven times the level of the minimum wage. It can be supplemented by a further period of up to three years of childcare leave, which is unpaid.

Prima facie evidence suggests that Kazakhstan fares better in activating the skills of its labour force than OECD countries, major emerging economies and its neighbouring countries (see Figure 2.1). In 2018, the employment rate of the population (aged between 15 and 64) in Kazakhstan was 65.7%, much higher than the sample of OECD countries shown by Figure 2.1. At the same time, the unemployment (4.8%) and inactivity rates (30.9%) were significantly lower.

However, similarly to many other emerging economies, the low level of unemployment in Kazakhstan largely reflects the absence or weakness of social insurance schemes, which makes unemployment unaffordable and pushes many workers into jobs with very low and uncertain earnings. Most of these jobs are a “last resort”, in which the worker spends a relatively small number of hours, often in combination with other activities in the informal sector.

The latest figures show that the share of informal workers, defined as the share of employees who do not pay social contributions and the self-employed whose businesses are not registered, is about 16.8% in Kazakhstan. By international standards, this level is not high, given the level of development of the country and the sector composition of the economy (OECD, 2016[4]; Rutkowski, 2011[5]). Evidence suggests that youth, older workers and the low-skilled are considerably more likely than other groups to work informally or be self-employed.

Concerning the challenges faced by specific groups, although the figures suggest that youth (aged 15-28) perform comparatively well in Kazakhstan, large differences exist across socio-demographic and geographic groups. One way to look at the issue is to focus on the youth who are not in employment, education or training (NEET), which captures those who face the highest risk of being permanently excluded from the labour market. Measured as a percentage of the total youth population, the NEET rate is higher among young women (9.9%) than young men (4.8%). Particularly large differences exist across regions, with NEET rates being highest in the Karagandy Province (12.3%) and Turkeminstanskai region (10.7%), and lowest in the Kostanay Province (4.7%) and West Kazakhstan (2.8%) (see Figure 2.2). Higher NEET rates are found among youth with no, or only, primary education than more educated youth (OECD, 2017[1]).

Older people in Kazakhstan (conventionally defined as workers aged 55-64 years old) show inactivity rates higher than the OECD average (42.4% versus 38.9%), while employment rates are lower (54.8% versus 58.1%). The labour market situation of older workers deteriorates with age. People aged 65-69 in Kazakhstan are twice less likely to be employed (the employment rate is 12%) and much more likely to be inactive (the inactivity rate is 87%) than the OECD average (where the two measures are 24.9% and 74.4%, respectively). On the other hand, unemployment rates are very low, reflecting low participation in the labour market (OECD, 2017[1]).

The employment rate of people with disabilities is relatively low in Kazakhstan by international comparison, despite the fact that most of them have some capacity to work. This represents a large unexploited potential supply of skills and reflects high barriers to the hiring and retention of people with disabilities. At 22%, in Kazakhstan, the employment rate of people with disabilities compares poorly to the OECD-European average of 46.9% and falls at the bottom of the ranking (OECD, 2017[1]).

As in many OECD countries, in Kazakhstan, low-skilled people struggle more to enter the labour market. People with primary education or below generally have much higher inactivity rates than people with higher education (92% versus 20%) and significantly lower employment rates (8% versus 76%). Women in Kazakhstan have significantly lower employment rates than men (60.6% versus 73.2%), resulting primarily from higher inactivity rates (34% versus 23.1%). Regional differences are also important, reflecting different levels of development and economic activity. People living in southern and western regions of the country – such as South Kazakhstan, Kyzylorda, and West Kazakhstan – generally show poorer labour market performance (see Figure 2.3).

This section describes three opportunity areas to improve the activation of skills of vulnerable populations in Kazakhstan. The selection is based on input from literature, desk research, discussions with Kazakhstan’s national project team, discussions with stakeholders in workshops in Nur-Sultan and Almaty, as well as virtual meetings involving more than 100 stakeholders. In light of this evidence, the following opportunities are considered to be the most relevant for the specific context in Kazakhstan to improve the activation of skills of its vulnerable populations:

  • Opportunity 1: Improving the accessibility and quality of public employment centres

  • Opportunity 2: Strengthening the effectiveness of active labour market programmes for vulnerable populations

  • Opportunity 3: Promoting family policies for a more equitable sharing of unpaid and paid work.

Approachable and responsive employment centres are pivotal to improve the activation of people’s skills. Employment centres play important roles in disseminating information on job vacancies, organising active labour market programmes and delivering employment services to jobseekers. This is even more important in light of the COVID-19 crisis, which requires public employment services to show responsiveness by quickly and flexibly adapting to the new situation.

However, as stressed by many stakeholders during workshops and focus group discussions, jobseekers in Kazakhstan typically are not very motivated to register with PES. The main reasons include the low quality of services provided and cumbersome registration procedures, which necessitate the submission of numerous documents from different offices and the fulfilment of complex and time-consuming administrative requirements (OECD, 2017[1]).

To increase the willingness of the most vulnerable populations in Kazakhstan to register with and benefit from PES, three policy directions could be considered, as follows.

Recent OECD evidence suggests that the effects of the coronavirus and containment measures have differed across population groups, according to age, gender and socio-economic backgrounds. Women and youth have been impacted more severely by the shutdowns in a number of sectors where they are typically over-represented, such as restaurants, hotels, passenger transport, personal care services and leisure services. Reflecting the disproportionate representation of low-income and part-time workers, these groups have entered the current period of financial pain in a significantly more precarious state than regular, more protected, workers (Barbieri, Basso and Scicchitano, 2020[8]). Countries have substantially reduced internship and apprenticeship contracts for youth, raising concerns about the emergence of a “corona generation” of marginalised youth with little career prospects (OECD, 2020[2]).

With face-to-face meetings less likely, there has been scope for the PES to intensify the use of digital tools, direct phone services to ensure the continuation of their counselling and career guidance in these challenging times. Even before the COVID-19 crisis, for example, the Estonian PES provided remote career guidance and counselling via email, phone and Skype. The benefits of having these services in place appear to be accentuated by the pandemic: between January and March 2020, the demand for remote career counselling increased more than seven-fold in Estonia, with the most popular option remaining phone counselling (Holland and Mann, 2020[9]). Telephone-based solutions, in particular, are easy to implement at little extra cost and have the advantage of being easily accessible by clients without digital skills or devices (OECD, 2020[10]).

More generally, the concomitance between soaring caseload numbers with the application of distancing requirements has tested the agility of the PES. For example, most OECD countries had explicit job search reporting procedures prior to the crisis (Immervoll and Knotz, 2018[11]), aiming to encourage jobseekers to look for work as speedily as possible. With the crisis, many countries have eased and adjusted these requirements for jobseekers with children at home, reflecting childcare facility or school closures (e.g. Austria, Brussels [Belgium], the Netherlands and the United Kingdom). In other countries, the PES have temporarily suspended job search requirements altogether and lifted sanctions (e.g. France, Germany, Portugal, Slovenia and Sweden). Others did not apply sanctions but encouraged jobseekers to continue actively searching for jobs (e.g. Australia, Denmark, Estonia and Latvia) (OECD, 2020[2]). In some OECD countries, PES offices have shifted to prioritising processing unemployment benefit applications (OECD, 2020[10]).

The advantages of increased digitalisation of PES services will likely extend beyond the COVID-19 crisis, resulting in more permanent gains. Improving information technology (IT) systems has the potential to reduce the time that case workers need to devote to routine tasks, allowing them to concentrate on more tailor-made services for individual clients (OECD, 2020[10]). Kazakhstan can draw inspiration from the experience of OECD countries that have recently taken steps to intensify PES e-services (see Box 2.1), bearing in mind that it is important to prioritise the safety of staff while ensuring the quality of services provided. According to stakeholders consulted throughout the mission, most employment centres in Kazakhstan rely on face-to-face meetings to provide services to clients. To better respond to the COVID-19 crisis, PES could also reorganise staff work routines via teleworking, allowing flexible shifts at the workplace, for example (OECD, 2020[12]).

Jobseekers have different characteristics and skills profiles (OECD, 2015[13]). Several stakeholders in the assessment mission stressed that there are unexploited opportunities in Kazakhstan for increasing the capacity of the PES to provide personalised services tailored to the skills and work expectations of each individual. For example, they have a role to play in orienting older workers, young parents and individuals with health problems towards jobs that are particularly suitable for them, for example, because they make stronger use of part-time arrangements, flexible start and finishing time arrangments or teleworking.

One way to better tailor services to vulnerable populations is to strengthen job profiling. OECD countries have various jobseeker profiling procedures in place to deliver services that appropriately reflect the needs of specific groups, taking into account their skills characteristics and probability of becoming long-term unemployed. Typically, profiling is used by caseworkers to set out an individual action plan (IAP) with implementation often facilitated by recourse to information technology (see Box 2.2) (OECD, 2015[13]).

Successful activation of jobseekers requires competent and motivated employment counsellors. Counsellors have to combine a broad range of competencies, involving “hard” skills (e.g. performing administrative tasks and using IT systems) and “soft” skills such as job broking, profiling and counselling. The ability to work in a multi-disciplinary team is also important to address social exclusion, in particular, to address individuals and families who need assistance in several areas of life. This includes through the support of co-ordinated responses with health specialists, psychologists, social insurance workers and other professionals.

Various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) operate in Kazakhstan, playing a positive role in facilitating the activation of vulnerable populations and their skills. Feedback from stakeholders during the assessment mission has revealed that their substantial knowledge of the most disadvantaged groups and the social and employment barriers they face is largely under-utilised. There seems to be in particular a lack of co-operation between the government, local employment centres and NGOs, which prevents the sharing of knowledge and experiences about practices to provide tailored ALMPs to those facing the highest risks of social and labour market exclusion.

Stakeholders also reported that the performance of public employment centres, as evidenced by their capacity to support clients in their search for suitable jobs, is relatively low, compared to private employment agencies in Kazakhstan. This suggests that giving the two types of agencies more opportunities to explore synergies and collaborate more closely could be an appropriate avenue to explore, particularly in the urban areas and for more readily employable workers who are less in need of basic training. This seems to be in line with international practice (OECD, 2019[15]; OECD, 2017[1]). Many PES in OECD countries outsource some employment services to private providers. The most notable example is Australia, where the PES outsources all employment services to private providers (OECD, 2015[13]).

In Kazakhstan, employment services started to be outsourced to private employment agencies in 2018. Although the legal framework has been adapted to accompany the expansion of these new services, the collaboration between public and private centres remains limited. Kazakhstan can benefit from promoting public-private partnerships (PPPs) to facilitate co-operation between public and private employment agencies (Scoppetta, 2013[16]; Barbier, Hansen and Samorodov, 2003[17]), which are discussed in Chapter 5. Currently, there are about 98 private agencies operating in Kazakhstan, of which 54 are connected to the Electronic Labor Exchange, the government-run online platform for job search and recruitment, which operates under the Enbek website.

Although recent data show that registration with PES among the unemployed has increased in the past few years, registration rates remain low compared to European OECD countries. In 2019, about 22% (97 500 people) of all unemployed people were registered with the PES in Kazakhstan, versus an average of 60% in European OECD countries (see Figure 2.4). More recent data shows that, as of April 2020, 149 783 unemployed people aged 15-64 were registered with the PES in Kazakhstan, which is a significant jump compared to 2019. This largely reflects the increased unemployment caused by the COVID-19 crisis in the first quarter of 2020.

In addition, a majority of caseworkers face irregular working hours and relatively low pay, which undermines their motivations and contributes to high turnover rates. High turnover of caseworkers is a source of inefficient delivery of employment services and substantially lowers the quality of services due to losses of skills and lack of continuity. Moreover, many caseworkers are low skilled and lack the experience and competencies needed to respond to the need of clients, including by using available tools and information and communication technologies (ICTs) (OECD, 2017[1]). Evidence suggests that the skill levels and attitudes of caseworkers toward their clients may play an important role in the quality and effectiveness of PES. As mentioned above, counsellors need a broad range of competencies, ranging from “hard” skills (e.g. performing administrative tasks and using IT systems) to “soft” skills, such as job brokering, counselling and social work, so as to be able to improve outcomes for the unemployed (OECD, 2015[13]). It is of critical importance to provide sufficient training to caseworkers on digital skills as well as interpersonal skills (see Box 2.3).

As discussed above, Kazakhstan has recently improved its online vacancy bank. Since 2018, the Electronic Labor Exchange, a central web portal for job search and recruitment, has been fully integrated with the employment centres’ vacancy database. However, as mentioned by several stakeholders, including representatives from the National Chamber of Entrepreneurs (NCE or Atameken), during the OECD Skills Strategy project missions, the limited attractiveness of the positions advertised in the job vacancy bank is a source of concern. Particularly, many of the positions are mainly for low-quality and temporary jobs. In addition, some posted job positions have already been filled, whereas others are still at the level of intention. These problems reflect the need for regular screening to verify the quality of the information and to keep the system up to date. Keeping the vacancy database up to date will be even more important during and following the coronavirus pandemic, which can be expected to entail shifts in labour demand across sectors and regions.

Active labour market policies could support skills activation by enhancing people’s motivation and incentives to seek employment; improving job readiness and support in finding suitable employment; and expanding employment opportunities. For this to happen, it is crucial that ALMPs are evaluated and that, following these evaluations, funding is allocated to the programmes that delivered the best value for money. However, several stakeholders consulted throughout the OECD Skills Strategy project reported that limited evaluations of the impact of ALMPs is carried out in Kazakhstan. Even when this happens, results are unlikely to be used to inform relevant policies and support progress towards good practices. Based on this feedback, Kazakhstan should strengthen its active labour market policies, particularly with regard to vulnerable populations. Two pathways to doing so are presented below.

Several stakeholders consulted during the OECD Skills Strategy project reported that very few evaluations of the impact of ALMPs are carried out in Kazakhstan. Even when this happens, results are unlikely to be used to inform relevant policies and support progress towards good practices. International experience suggests that an assessment of existing ALMPs is important to improve the cost-effectiveness of interventions. It could help policy makers gain valuable information on whether programmes should be continued and eventually improved, or terminated because they are not effective (OECD, 2015[13]).

Developing rigorous impact evaluation systems could be particularly important in the context of Kazakhstan, where ALMPs generally have very broad eligibility criteria and are characterised by poor targeting. This implies that the system is prone to generating deadweight and substitution effects, which could reflect the over-representation of highly skilled participants, leaving little room for the vulnerable populations who need the ALMPs the most to find productive employment (OECD, 2017[1]).

A number of OECD countries have taken steps to build a stronger impact evaluation culture for ALMPs (see Box 2.4). In Germany, for example, the implementation of the 2003-05 reforms of both active and passive labour market policies was explicitly tied to an evaluation mandate. In Australia, the Try, Test and Learn Fund – set up in 2016 to identify new approaches to move at-risk income support recipients onto a pathway towards employment – uses a range of impact evaluation methods to test effectiveness and learn from results (OECD, 2019[23]). These efforts should be co-ordinated with initiatives in other skills policy areas (see Chapter 5). Chapter 5 finds that Kazakhstan has so far struggled in building a strong evaluation culture across the skills system, and recommends establishing a common evaluation and assessment framework for skills policies by forming an inter-ministerial working group. The development of the impact evaluation systems for ALMPs should be consistent with the common evaluation and assessment framework.

Recent data provided by the MLSPP suggest that expenditures on ALMPs as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) have increased in the past few years. In 2019, spending on ALMPs had almost recovered to the level of 2013, following a dramatic reduction in 2014 (by as much as 60%). However, the expenditure on ALMPs remains relatively low by international comparison. Kazakhstan spends about 0.24% of GDP on ALMPs, versus the OECD average of 0.52% (see Figure 2.5, Panel A).

Limited budgets may hinder the capacity to provide quality and sufficient ALMPs. Experiences from the past economic crisis show that OECD countries that scaled up expenditures on ALMPs achieved better labour market outcomes for youth (OECD, 2012[27]). In addition, past evidence shows that the positive impacts of ALMPs tend to be larger during periods of slow growth and higher unemployment (Card, Kluve and Weber, 2018[28]). This suggests that increased expenditure on ALMPs could be particularly important to support the recovery of the employment losses induced by the economic recession triggered by COVID-19.

Expenditures on ALMPs in Kazakhstan are skewed towards start-up incentive programmes, whereas the programmes geared at training and employment incentives account for a relatively small part of activation, despite training and employment promotion being an important part of the Enbek programme for productive employment and mass entrepreneurship development (see Box 2.5). OECD countries put more emphasis on training and employment incentives than Kazakhstan (see Figure 2.5, Panel B).

Evidence from previous OECD research (OECD, 2017[1]), as well as feedback from several stakeholders consulted during the assessment mission, suggest that the eligibility requirements for participating in ALMPs are often too broadly defined, without specific targeting at vulnerable populations most in need. To achieve effective interventions and inclusive growth, where quality employment opportunities reach the most disadvantaged groups, it is critical to improve the targeting of ALMPs.

International experience suggests that vulnerable populations may face particularly higher barriers and may need additional and tailored support to find quality employment. People from rural areas may find it relatively more difficult to participate in ALMPs, due to additional transportation costs or lack of time due to unpaid work burdens (OECD, 2017[29]; OECD, 2019[15]). Programmes should be designed in such a way that they take into account these dimensions.

Women with young children in Kazakhstan face high barriers to activate their skills in the labour market. Stakeholders in the assessment mission identified a range of barriers that prevent young mothers from returning to work, including lack of quality and affordable childcare facilities, traditional social norms and gender stereotypes. Formal childcare is often too expensive or too distant from home, while widespread, traditional social norms discourage the use of childcare facilities with the belief that babies should be taken care of by their own mothers. Family-friendly policies have an essential role to play in strengthening female labour market participation, along with fostering the recognition and use of their skills (Thévenon, 2013[31]; Thévenon, 2015[32]). Building on the feedback and evidence gathered throughout the OECD Skills Strategy project, this opportunity addresses two policy avenues, as follows.

The supply of quality and affordable early childhood education and care facilities is limited in Kazakhstan, particularly for children below the age of three (OECD, 2017[29]). According to OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) data, the percentage of students who do not attend pre-primary education in Kazakhstan is one of the highest among PISA-participating countries and economies (65%, rank 2/64), pointing to difficulties of access. Similarly, gross enrolment rates in pre-primary schools (for children aged 1-6 years) remain very low compared to a number of OECD and developing countries (OECD, 2016[33]).

Several stakeholders consulted during the OECD Skills Strategy project reported that affordable childcare for children aged 0-2 is lacking in Kazakhstan. In 2014, nurseries enrolled roughly 8.5% of children aged 0-2 in Kazakhstan, compared to an OECD average of 32.9% in 2013 (OECD, 2020[34]). Although significant progress has been made in the coverage of children aged 1-3 in preschool education over the past few years, public nurseries remain concentrated in only 9 of 14 regions in Kazakhstan. The cost of hiring a nanny is affordable only to families in the highest earnings group (ILO, 2012[35]).

Access to childcare facilities varies considerably across socio-economic groups and between rural and urban areas. It is particularly limited for women from vulnerable households, who work in the informal sector or are self-employed. Even within the largest cities, access can be limited in the most populated neighbourhoods, where demand is stronger (ILO, 2014[36]; Habibov, 2014[37]). This situation translates into long waiting lists. Although the number of childcare facilities has increased steadily since the early 2000s (see Figure 2.6), they are unequally distributed across areas

As a part of the Kazakhstan 2050 strategy, the Balapan programme aims to provide pre-primary education to all children aged 3-6 in Kazakhstan by expanding the supply of childcare facilities and easing the financial burden of childcare on parents. The programme involves the construction of new state kindergartens, as well as subsidies for parents to utilise private childcare facilities (such as kindergartens and mini-centres). For children in private kindergartens, the state covers most expenses, with parents just covering the fees for meals. While the programme concerns expanding the coverage of childcare services, quality standards remain to be defined.

Research using national data from 18 OECD countries reveals that expansions in childcare service provisions significantly boost women’s labour market participation as such expansions allow mothers to reconcile work and family commitments (Thévenon, 2013[31]; Thévenon, 2015[32]). Many OECD countries made progress in developing policies aimed at improving access to ECEC following the introduction of the 2013 OECD Recommendation of the Council on Gender Equality in Education, Employment and Entrepreneurship. OECD countries are increasingly aware of the importance of accessible childcare services, as illustrated by responses to the 2016 OECD Gender Equality Questionnaire (GEQ), for example, which reveal that almost two-thirds of countries think “making childcare more accessible” is one of the three “most effective ways to tackle barriers to female employment” (OECD, 2017[29]). Many OECD members have introduced or extended measures aimed at increasing the accessibility and affordability of ECEC, in one form or another (see Box 2.6).

Many OECD countries have concentrated on the costs of childcare, and have taken steps to improve affordability for parents (OECD, 2017[29]). In most cases these measures take the form of increases in subsidies or benefits/rebates for parents using childcare (e.g. Canada, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, the Slovak Republic and Poland). In New Zealand, for example, the level of both the Childcare Subsidy and the Out of School Care and Recreation subsidy – fee subsidies paid directly to providers on behalf of low-income families using registered ECEC and out of school hours services, respectively – were increased by 25% in 2016. Some countries have also looked to reduce the overall cost of childcare through the introduction or expansion of free childcare hours (Norway and the United Kingdom). Norway, for instance, has phased-in 20 weekly hours of free childcare for 3-5 year-olds from low-income families.

As mentioned in the arrangements section, maternity leave is well developed, while paternity leave is not in place in Kazakhstan. Parental leave and childcare leave, on the other hand, are available for both mothers and fathers, but fathers do not typically take leave. This reflects stereotypes and entrenched cultural attitudes, according to which childcare responsibilities are considered women’s duty. Such an environment discourages women from returning to productive employment after childbirth (OECD, 2017[1]).

In addition, evidence suggests that flexible work options are normally not very common in Kazakhstan. Most people either work full time or not at all. International experience shows, however, that the development of the services sector and the expansion of part-time work have been powerful factors in expanding female labour force participation in OECD countries (OECD, 2017[44]). Working time flexibility can help working parents reconcile their work schedules with the opening hours of childcare centres and schools (Cazesi, Hijzeni and Saint-Martini, 2016[45]). At the same time, working from home saves commuting time, although it also entails the risk of longer working hours, while blurring work and personal lives (Lott and Chung, 2016[46]).

Evidence from OECD countries also suggests that, in general, working parents find that flexible workplace measures improve their work-life balance. In Europe, 75% of employees, on average, have some work-schedule flexibility; in the Netherlands and Nordic countries, this percentage rises to 90% (OECD, 2016[47]). In addition, it shows that parents with a child of preschool age are most likely to use flexible working times or work from home, while women are three times more likely to work part-time than men (OECD, 2016[47]). From the employer perspective, flexible working practices can help recruit and retain staff while reducing absenteeism and turnover rates. Kazakhstan might be inspired in this regard by practices in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands (see Box 2.7).

Several stakeholders during the assessment missions reported that traditional social norms and gender stereotypes play an important role in preventing an equal distribution of housework responsibilities between men and women. Recently, OECD countries have introduced national public awareness campaigns to tackle gender stereotyping and norms, using both traditional and online media channels. In Australia, for example, the “Equilibrium Man Challenge” is a series of online micro-documentaries, which follow a group of men who have taken up flexible work arrangements, often to care for family members (OECD, 2017[29]). The campaign aims to help people recognise the benefits of a culture of gender equality, not only for women but for society as a whole.

Table 2.1 summarises the recommendations for this chapter. Based on feedback from stakeholders and from the national project team, three recommendations have been selected that could be considered to have the highest priority based on potential impact and relevance in the current Kazakhstan context. To improve the activation of skills of vulnerable populations, the OECD recommends that Kazakhstan should:

  • Adopt and utilise digital communication tools to ensure the continuation of services during and following the COVID-19 crisis (Recommendation 1.1).

  • Improve jobseeker profiling tools to enable upfront intervention, by allowing caseworkers to set up individual action plans (Recommendation 1.2).

  • Scale up expenditure on activation programmes with a proven track record and capacity to secure the achievement of stated objectives (Recommendation 1.8).


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