In this issue of “Stories of Forced Labour,” the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights presents an interview with a physician at a village medical clinic in Uzbekistan. This post originally appeared on the UGF website here.
Dr. Farhod K. , 43-year old physician at a village medical clinic in Qashqadaryo Region, interviewed November, 2014
Farhod: At the beginning of the year , they announced that we will work at the cotton fields. We pick cotton every year. Since cotton harvesting is every year in September, we all understand when it will be.
UGF: When were you sent to the cotton fields?
Farhod: The first group left on September 8. Three or four days later, we had a break. Everyone from our medical station had to go to harvest cotton. Only one to two doctors were left at the clinic on pro-forma duty. The rest went to work in the fields. We did not have enough people to work in shifts; therefore, we had to pick cotton from the beginning to the end of the season. When the last of us were returning it was snowing, the end of October. Doctors from our clinic were picking cotton for a month and a half.
UGF: Was cotton picking obligatory for everyone?
Farhod: It was obligatory for everyone. If one could not work, then they had to find a replacement. Therefore, sometimes a son, a daughter or another relative replaced them. Those who had the means paid seasonal workers to pick cotton instead of them.
UGF: If medical staff refused to pick cotton, what measures were taken against them?
Farhod: They were dismissed. If a replacement had escaped from a field, the employee for whom he or she was working was threatened with termination. They would say, “If the person who was picking cotton instead of you escaped, it is the same as you escaping. Come to work in the cotton field yourself, otherwise you will be dismissed.” Then the colleague would either send another replacement or have the first replacement return.
UGF: How much money did the seasonal workers receive for picking cotton?
Farhod: If they completed the person’s quota, 300,000 UZ So’m or $100 USD. It depended on their own arrangements.
UGF: When did work start in the morning and when did it finish?
Farhod: We woke up at 5:00 am. There were a lot of people; therefore, it was 6:30 am before everyone finished with morning hygiene and breakfast. At 7:00 am everyone had to be at the fields. For women it was even more difficult then for us. They woke up at 4 am and went to the cotton fields before sunrise.
UGF: Where do they work?
Farhod: They are also doctors. The daily quota was 50 kg. Picking less was not allowed. Usually we had to pick 60 – 70 kg. The quota was the same for 20 – 25 days. Thereafter it was reduced. Those who did not fulfill the quota were taken to the mat in the evenings. Police and the bosses scolded and threatened them. Sometimes there were also some children, they were threatened too.
UGF: Were these young people also doctors?
Farhod: No, they were replacing a mother or a friend. There were also 15, 16, 17-year old students. Some days, they harvested cotton, and after those who didn’t pick enough were admonished.
UGF: It was said that the children would not be at the cotton fields. When the bosses saw them, didn’t they say anything?
Farhod: No, they did not say anything. They only saw to the quantity of people. One day there was a control. I don’t remember, from Qarshi or some another region. They asked if children were also picking cotton. The bosses said that there are no children.They continued this way, and the controllers did not return.
UGF: How much were you paid for cotton harvesting?
Farhod: How I can earn money? The salary for that month is kept in the office. The rest, we spend for food and beverages there.
UGF: Where were you living while working in the cotton fields?
Farhod: When we went out for the first time, there was an old building at the state farm. Everyone stayed there, both men and women. Three or four days later other pickers came there too. When the staff of medical centers of other villages joined, they relocated the men to the school gym.
UGF: What were the conditions?
Farhod: The conditions were like in the stall. We became “friends” with mouses and rats while living in the state farm’s old building. When we went to stay in the gym we found out that those “friends” have “relatives”. Then we became “friends” with them too. You know, during the Soviet times there were places in the farms where domestic animals were washed. We did not have even this while staying in the fields. There were no showers, to say nothing of hot water. We went to the canal to wash ourselves. However, when it got colder, we stop washing at all.
The same with the food. In the morning, we got only tea with sugar. One loaf of bread was divided among three people. Everyone got a spoon of sugar. That was all we got for breakfast. We had to sustain with this until 1 pm. Then we went for lunch. The lunch was also “great”. There was one big pot with one kilogram of meat, one kilogram of potatoes, half a kilogram of onions, one kilogram of butter, and the rest either rice or noodles, and that’s all for 40 – 45 people. The food was always the same.
UGF: How much money did they deduct from your earnings?
Farhod: 28 kilograms of cotton were deducted for the food. They were giving us soup every day. People had to eat something else. It is a good time for shopkeepers when people come to work at the cotton fields. Pickers run to the shop to buy something reasonable to eat whenever we get money. The water was also unfit. The water in the desert is quite bad. We had to drink it every day. They either gave us crude water or were boiling it in the samovar. We drank it. When you work in the field you have to drink kind of water. As I said, there were some children. It was especially difficult for them. If they wanted to leave the field to drink water, the police did not allow them. The policemen brought the children back. Water was a problematic issue.
UGF: What you would say, how did the cotton harvest affect the village medical center?
Farhod: A bad effect. Think about it; all staff members left a village medical center for cotton picking. Only one or two remained on duty. Is it possible for one or two to do the job of so many people? We have an emergency ambulance. There are different kinds of patients. There are old people. We have to visit them one to two times per week to measure blood, to ask about their health, or to give them injections. When we go to the cotton fields, nobody does this job. Our patients are left without care. If something dangerous happens and they bring a sick person to a big hospital, there are just few doctors there too. Half of them are also at the cotton fields. If someone calls an emergency ambulance, it does not come. They explain it with the excuse of begin short on gasoline and ask the caller to bring the patient to the medical center. It has a very negative impact on our work.
UGF: Does the state require the staff of the village medical center to do other kinds of work?
Farhod: There are such mobilizations. We clean big roads. We have community clean ups. We grow silk moths if needed. In the spring they give us silk moths. If there is no space, we grow them at the home of one of our doctors. If needed, we also collect money to pay a colleague to grow it in his or her place.
 This is not the interviewee’s actual name, which is kept anonymous to protect the interviewee.
 Name of the district and the medical center are not stated, in order to protect the interviewee.
By Brian Campbell, Legal Adviser and Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign Coordinator
Increasingly, the government of Uzbekistan is the only actor in the room that continues to deny its system of forced labor cotton production. Every year, the Uzbek government forces farmers to produce state-established quotas of cotton and to sell it to the government for less than production costs, and every year the government forces over a million citizens to harvest cotton. This is one of the largest state-run forced labor systems in the world, yet it continues because the Uzbek government is addicted to the slush fund it provides. To avoid reform, the Uzbek government misrepresents the reality.
Recently, the Uzbek government sent a statement to governments and international organizations with a glaring inaccuracy, claiming that in 2014 the World Bank Inspection Panel “assessed the significant progress in issues of reforming the labor and cotton production industry.” To the contrary, the Inspection Panel, which oversees Bank policy compliance, reported that while there was a “lack of organized and systematic child labor in the 2014 cotton harvest…forced labor had replaced child labor and cannot be estimated to be on the decrease.”
Sadly, while the Uzbek government works on spinning reality, its actions belie its words. Last week, the Uzbek government arrested, interrogated, deported and banned from the country an international labor expert, Dr. Andre Mrost, who was in the country for discussions with potential partners in his company’s bid for a World Bank contract to create a mechanism that would allow Uzbek citizens to register complaints related to labor laws and the Bank’s agricultural and education projects in the country. Bank financing for these projects totals more than half a billion dollars, and the World Bank has committed to establish such a mechanism as well as to monitor labor conditions in its project areas and suspend its loans if there is child or forced labor in them.
No amount of spin can belie the fact that the Uzbek government has not taken steps to dismantle the forced labor cotton system it has created. It will take continued pressure from the international community, including the World Bank, the International Labor Organization and their member states to convince the authorities in Tashkent to stop spinning this massive human rights violation and take steps to dismantle it.
The following remarks were originally posted on the website of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights here.
Representatives of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan – Elena Urlaeva and Shukhrat Rustamov – were banned by Uzbek authorities to travel to South Korea were they were to accept the Tji Hak-Soon Justice and Peace Foundation award at the official ceremony on March 11th.
Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,
With all my heart I congratulate the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan and its leader Elena Urlaeva for receiving the Tji Hak-Soon Justice and Peace Foundation award.
I firmly believe it is difficult to find a more deserving group of people to receive the award for justice and peace. For many years, the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan has worked in the name of human rights, freedom, justice and peace in Uzbekistan.
To protect human rights in Uzbekistan is dangerous and difficult work.Today in Uzbekistan, a country with 31 million people, there are no more than 20 people openly advocating for the protection of human rights. Since 2005, after the massacre in Andijan city, the government forced all local and international organizations working on human rights to close. The government’s systematic persecution of civil society activists has continued. It is an ongoing, daily struggle invisible to most of the world, between Uzbek authorities on the one hand and human rights activists, independent journalist, and anyone who dares to criticize this government on the other.
I have known the leader of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, Elena Urlaeva, for more than 15 years. I met her for the first time when she was demonstrating outside the Prosecutor’s Office in Tashkent. As usual, she was standing there holding a sheet of paper that read: “I demand justice.“ She was demanding justice and peace for the innocent, condemned victims of state repression.
Suddenly, she was approached by a young strong man, clearly from the security service. With all his power, he hit her in the stomach. Elena bent in pain, and it seemed to me that I also felt the pain experienced by Elena. It was harsh violence against a peacefully standing woman, and this gross act of violence was under the eyes of the police. None of the police officers responded to the violence. Everyone knew that the man who hit Elena was a thug of the government.
After some time, in spring 2002, I went to see Elena in the psychiatric hospital, where she was forcibly placed. When I asked the doctor for the reason why Elena was in the clinic, the doctor said that she had dressed in religious clothing and demonstrated outside the Ministry of Justice demanding the government stop persecution of people because of their religion.
For officials who are now in power in Uzbekistan, a man or woman who selflessly protects not himself or herself, but the rights of others, who is willing to risk his or her health and life for the freedom and justice of others, such a person is – according to them – insane, and therefore it is necessary to isolate and treat them in a so called “psychiatric hospital”.
In 2007, when I was imprisoned myself, Elena stood outside the court with her 3-year old son and demanded my release. The courage and bravery of Elena Urlaeva gives hope and strength to all other human rights defenders in Uzbekistan and around the world.
I thank the Tji Hak-Soon Foundation for recognizing the brave members of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan with this award, and hope that this support and partnership with civil society of Korea will continue and contribute to the goals of justice and peace in Uzbekistan.
Umida Niyazova, human rights activist, political refugee, Director of Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, Berlin.
Photo courtesy of Advocates for Public Interest Law: Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan receives the Tji Hak-Soon Peace and Justice award in Seoul, South Korea
When “Trust but Verify” Is Not Enough: Continued Pressure Is Needed to End Forced Labor in Uzbekistan
By Judith Mazdra, Open Society Foundations, originally posted here.
Over the past several years, the Uzbekistan government has announced steps to end its use of child labor during the country’s annual cotton harvest. But that does not mean Uzbekistan has stopped forcing its citizens to harvest cotton. It has shifted the burden of compulsory labor onto adults.
Yet, the international community largely has accepted Tashkent’s promises of reform and statements of progress. Even its proposed reforms are mostly cosmetic. And Tashkent’s unwillingness to end forced labor altogether is directly correlated with the level of pressure placed on it by the international community.
A review of U.S. government reports and cables made public through WikiLeaks clearly demonstrates how one key international actor—the United States—repeatedly has rushed to embrace promises of progress that later proved ephemeral. As this policy brief notes, a clear and consistent voice from the United States and international community is necessary to force changes to Uzbekistan’s forced labor program.
Download the full policy brief “When ‘Trust but Verify’ Is Not Enough: Continued Pressure Is Needed to End Forced Labor in Uzbekistan” here.