This is the question posed earlier this month by the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia. That group's press release of November 4 broke the stories of deaths and injuries suffered earlier in the harvest. More than just breaking news, the group points out the total complicity of institutions that, in a non-totalitarian society might be expected to protest this mass enslavement, or at least offer some support to the victims, namely, trade unions and healthcare organizations. Read the full release after the break.
Association for Human Rights in Central Asia
Centre MBE 140, 16, rue de Docteur Leroy, 72000 LE MANS FRANCE
Tel.: +33 6 13 41 40 70; E-Mail: asiecentrale@ neuf.fr
November 4, 2009
Uzbekistan’s 2009 cotton harvest is in, but at what price?
The country’s top leadership has issued the list of the leading cotton producing districts in this year’s harvest. Among them are the Gurlen district of Khorezm province and the Ellikkalin district of the Karakalpakstan autonomous republic. See below for a selection of the evidence of forced labor in these and other districts, as well as information on cases of illness and even death resulting from the state’s poor organization of harvest labor.
Three hundred fifty medical workers split into six groups took part in harvesting cotton in Khorezm’s Iangibazar district. They were charged with picking a quota of 60 kg per day, totaling over 15 tons daily. One hundred fifty of the medical workers from the Iangibazar district central hospital were assigned to one Iangibazar farm alone; they were under obligation to gather 120 tons of cotton. During the course of their work there were cases of fevers and intensified chronic illnesses among the rural residents picking cotton in the same fields. That segment of the population generally does not have money to purchase medications or to see doctors, which aids in spreading colds and other viruses throughout the villages. At the same time, since medical personnel are distracted from their primary occupation in the fall [when they are out picking cotton], the level of care provided for infectious disease patients is lowered.
* * *
On October 13, an employee of the Khorezm Oncological Center, G.U. (name withheld to protect the victim’s privacy), born in 1982, was beaten, robbed and raped on her way home from picking cotton in the Urgench district. At 7 pm she was walking home in an unpopulated area along the highway when she was attacked by an unknown man, 25 kilometers from the center of Urgench. She was hospitalized in critical condition.
Usually G.U.’s husband walked her home from work but could not that day. After this incident her husband’s family cut off any contact with G.U. In rural Uzbekistan due to particular cultural and religious traditions and the prevailing popular mentality, the victim is usually blamed in these circumstances, which only intensifies her trauma. Her husband had previously requested that her employer, the Oncological Center, exempt her from picking cotton, but the head doctor (Svetlana Ibragimova Palvanova) refused, citing the need to fulfill the district governor’s instructions to mobilize all workers to bring in the cotton.
The local police detained the [alleged] attacker shortly thereafter, and are currently investigating the crime.
The victim continues to experience traumatic effects, the future impact of which it is difficult to predict. Nevertheless, G.U. is not planning to sue her employer who failed to provide safe conditions during the work day. Labor law requires that employers must supply workers with transportation if those workers are required to carry out tasks that require supplemental transport to different worksites. However in Uzbekistan very few workers are aware of their rights set out in collective bargaining agreements or even in national legislation. There is a high level of unemployment in the country and so many citizens withstand unbelievable humiliation just to preserve their jobs. Enterprise directors prefer to follow the unwritten directives of their higher ups, experience shows, for the very same reason—to preserve their own jobs, which confer status in society and material benefits.
The management of the Khorezm oncological center is doing its utmost to prevent the discovery of any written orders to the victim regarding the cotton harvest. It seems, therefore, that no one is planning to compensate the victim for her physical and moral suffering…?
* * *
A cotton-harvest related automobile crash in the Urgench district of Khorezm province on October 26 took the life of a 28 year old doctor. A bus carrying employees of the Urgench central district hospital was returning from the cotton fields when it was struck in the side by a wagon carrying cotton which had uncoupled from its tractor on a poor stretch of road. In addition to the doctor, two hospital employees were hospitalized in critical condition and two other bus passengers were injured.
* * *
The Association for Human Rights in Central Asia has concluded that the organizers of this year’s cotton harvest were not able to provide workers with free choice of employment or with fair conditions of employment, as laid out in article 37 of the Constitution of Uzbekistan.
The Republic of Uzbekistan Labor Code, which came into force on April 1 1996 contains more than thirty articles directly related to worker protection. For example, article 241 forbids persons younger than 18 years of age from engaging in work that is harmful to health. This national norm applies not only to those up to the age of 15 (as specified in the law On Guarantees of the Rights of Children), but covers fully all persons up to age 18.
The last list of territories where work conditions are pronounced harmful to health was promulgated by the government in 1996; the lack of a current list prevents persons living and working in those zones from receiving state benefit payments.
Labor unions in the country are completely inactive, playing very little role in relations between employees and workers. It is noteworthy that the chairman of the Federation of Labor Unions of Uzbekistan serves at the same time as a member of the government. This crudely violates the fundamental principles of labor union organizing, the independence of unions from the executive branch of government, from local government, and other social and political groups. It is for this reason that the Uzbekistan federation is still not accepted as a member of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).
* * *
Members of the Association have documented photographically the use of forced child labor in those regions praised as “first rate” cotton producers by the government, including the Gurlen district of Khorezm province. In the Ellikalin district of the Republic of Karakalpakstan, young people worked in fields sprayed with toxic chemicals, and as a result, many of them contracted intestinal illnesses. Medical offices have refused either to register those illnesses ro to document their likely cause.