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.
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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…?
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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.
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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).
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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.
Today the Veritas human rights group in Uzbekistan distributed their preliminary report on this year's cotton harvest, with some photos to accompany it. The report is not yet on the web, or in English, so I'll post its most striking findings here. Activists from the group surveyed conditions in 11 provinces; they recently toured through four provinces and found the following:
Where does the cotton go, and how can Western end-users avoid consuming it? This is a question that needs a lot more exploration. According to a recent press release, the cotton fair in Tashkent was a great success, pushing the slave-harvested commodity out and probably into goods that stock our shops. Reportedly, contracts were signed for over 600,000 tons of this year's crop alone, and the list of attendees was the largest ever. Clearly, not everyone is getting the message.
Fergana.ru published the list (see it reproduced below) of those attending the conference. It is an interesting document for many reasons, a few of which are highlighted here:
It's a trite formula for a story: note an anniversary of a worthy treaty/announcement/international agreement, then express regret that in spite of some laudable progress, look how far there is yet to go, throwing in a tear-jerking example or two. This past week, the 20th anniversary of the signing of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child presented this opportunity and as trite as it is, I don't feel able to pass it by.
UNICEF issued a glossy report on the state of the world's children taking just that stance (much progress, so far to go). Uzbekistan, where UNICEF takes an extreme softly-softly approach (so softly they don't publicly discuss Uzbekistan's policy of forced child labor anywhere), was not mentioned. As the anniversary dawned, we learned from a caller to the Uzbek service of Radio Liberty (Radio Ozodlik) that high schoolers are still living in unheated buildings, forced to pick the last unopened cotton bolls as the temperature at night dips below freezing. Article 32 of the Convention, meanwhile, states that:
States parties recognize the right of children to be free from economic exploitation, and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's education, or to be harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.
Uzbekistan's children, it seems, don't have much to celebrate this anniversary.
This just in from the Rapid Response Group, a coalition of Uzbek human rights activists. Ganihon Mamakhanov, whose trial starts today, is a Fergana-based activist, arrested at the height of the cotton harvest (October 10) on trumped up charges after local police planted evidence on him. The implications are clear for those brave individuals trying to bring to light forced child labor. Since they have to pay such a high price, shouldn't we all be listening?
According to Abdusalom Ergashev, a human rights defender from Ferghana city, today on Nov. 16 hearings on a criminal case against Ganikhon Mamatkhanov, a human rights activist, shall begin in Akhunbabaev district court on criminal cases (Ferghana district). On October 10th 2009 Ganikhon Mamatkhonov, a human rights defender from Ferghana region, was arrested by Ferghana city public procurator’s office under the charges of money extortion. Mr.Mamatkhonov alleges that a local farmer who has been cooperating with the local law enforcement officers planted 500.000 Uzbek sums (approximately $ 350 USD) to Mr. Mamatkhonov’s pocket when the latter was talking to him. Mr. Mamatkhonov then immediately arrested by the officers of the public procurator’s office who were waiting nearby. Mr. Mamatkhonov and his colleagues think that the authorities want to prosecute the outspoken human rights activist who used to openly speak about human rights violations.
Uzbekistan's government has never taken too kindly to those who would expose its crimes against its own people. The brave people documenting the forced labor of children in the cotton harvest are no exception. The BBC reports the latest violence against one of them here.
Deutsche Welle Russian service features a snapshot of current conditions and analysis of Uzbekistan's forced child labor in cotton by Uzbek sociologist Alisher Ilkhamov. Key point:
...forced child labor is itself a symptom of deep structural problems in agriculture. Amongthe primary ones is the strict centralization of the cotton sector in Uzbekistan, nearly to the same degree as it was under Soviet rule. Farmers cannot decide what they will sow in their fields; they sell their produce [to the state] at a price the state determines, which are artificially low, and so therefore farmers cannot pay adults [to harvest cotton] or invest in processing of cotton or other agricultural products.
This is a key observation, though it is not news to those who are familiar with conditions in the country. The World Bank cites "state interference" in the sector as a key developmental challenge, and reminds us that "Although the gap between the state order and export parity price for the cotton has narrowed by about 10 percentage points between 2004 and 2006, the state order price remains well below the export parity prices and similar prices in the neighboring countries." Why then are development organizations active in the country not more critical of these problems, and of the forced child labor that stems from them. The World Bank's country information, incidentally, doesn't mention FCL at all...
It's worth reading through the entire (slightly redacted) message below from the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, just to get a sense of the Orwellian humiliations people in Uzbekistan must endure during their annual "cotton campaign." This student was lucky enough to get reinstated in her institute, from which she was expelled for having the nerve to obtain (thanks to a Herculean effort and outside assistance from a human rights group) a legitimate health certificate excusing her from forced labor in the cotton fields. What's clear from this account is that oral instructions from on high now mean that there are no more health grounds on which pupils are excused from their common fate each harvest season.
* * *
The "Golden Ticket," or, You are Free to Go (home from the cotton fields and from your college besides)
Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, Pakhtakor [cotton picker] district, Jizzakh province
October 28, 2009
Feruza is an ordinary student, a graduate of the technical high school in the town of Pakhtakor. Together with her classmates she was sent out to work in the cotton fields. Shortly thereafter her dust allergy brought up hives on her hands and face. She went to the local polyclinic, but no one would examine her there. At the same time the lecturers at her institute began to harangue her for not showing up to pick cotton.
Feruza came to the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan to get help in obtaining a certificate of her illness [excusing her from work in the fields] to present to her college. So we accompanied Feruza to the local dermatological hospital and met with the doctor on duty, Akbar Khamidov. Dr. Khamidov, despite the fact of Feruza's obvious symptoms, told her that he could not treat her because of an order from "on high" not to give out any certificates to anyone even if they are truly sick. When asked who gave such an order, Khamidov answered that it came from the provincial health department. I [Saida Kurbonova, chair of the HRSU in the district] asked him, did he take the Hippocratic oath and vow to provide treatment to the sick? Or perhaps he took some oath about not violating orders of local bureaucrats? At that he agreed at least to examine Feruza, but he first called the head of the hospital and told him about our request. After receiving permission from the chief doctor, Khamidov examined the patient, wrote her a prescription, and inscribed on a paper that "The student is truly ill and is receiving treatment at our hospital."
We took that paper to Feruza's college. However, the academic dean, who introduced herself as Nargiza, didn't accept it, and instructed us to bring a different paper from the [central] polyclinic, "Excusing the holder from work in the cotton harvest."
The next day, we went to the central district polyclinic where we were told that such a certificate would be enforced only if it had the triangular stamp of the polyclinic, and in addition, the round stamp of the hospital. We turned again to the head doctor of the hospital, one Sh. Boltaev, who placed the necessary stamp on our paper. After lunch we went back to the polyclinic, where we were told that the patient would have to be examined by a committee of doctors: a surgeon, an internist, an opthomologist, and others. And, at the end of the day, after being examined by all of those doctors, our student finally received that golden paper, excusing her from work in the fields.
Feruza brought the certificate to the college the following day, but turned out that her troubles weren't finished. After two days had passed Feruza's class director brought all of her official registration papers back to her home and announced that, as she was not participating in the cotton harvest, she had been expelled.
We spent two days to get a certificate of illness when the girl had obvious symptoms. The College administration, not hesitating at the fact that Feruza had been studying there for two years, even after receiving this certificate, decided to expel her. We immediately appealed to the College administration for them to reinstate Feruza, which they did. In this one instance we were able to defend the rights of this student. However we must note that hundreds of students in higher education institutions and schoolchildren are in analogous situations, working in cotton fields all around the country. They are living in inhumane conditions, eating food unfit for human consumption, sleeping on the floor, and getting sickened by all manner of illnesses. What is to become of them?
Chairperson, Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan
Pakhtakor district, Jizzakh province
Guest blog: “No matter how many times you say the word ‘halva,’ it doesn’t get any sweeter in your mouth”: Hoja Nasreddin’s commentary on the new (no, really, NEW) Uzbek law against child labor
The hero of Sufi fables and humorous stories, Hoja Nasreddin embodies folk wisdom. He would have appreciated the assiduous attempts by Uzbek bureaucrats to turn black into white, churning out another in a series of laws prohibiting child- and forced labor. To date, Uzbekistan has signed and ratified the UN conventions on forced- and child labor, passed laws “On Guarantees of the Rights of the Child,” “On Youth,” amended the labor code, all of which explicitly prohibit child labor. In September 2008 the government issued a Decree on Implementing UN Conventions on the minimum age for labor, after which it adopted an Action [inaction?] Plan on the implementation of the decree on implementation. Whew!
And yet, here is another law on the same subject, according to the reporting of Uzmetronom.com. The legislature on November 3 adopted the law “On amendments to the Administrative Code,” which also concern the implementation of the Action [inaction] plan on the implementation of the ILO Convention on the Prohibition and Immediate Measures to Eradicate the Worst Forms of Child Labor, and the Convention on the Minimum Age of Employment.
And what, you might ask, has been the result of all this lawmaking? Hoja Nasreddin, are you listening? "No matter how many times you say the word ‘halva’…"