Thursday, 28 October 2010

Adults Suffer Forced Labor, Beatings in Uzbek Cotton Campaign: Human Rights Groups

Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights
Adults and children turned out to harvest cotton in Uzbekistan

Much of the reporting on the cotton season in Uzbekistan has focused on the use of forced child labor, despite government pledges to discontinue the practice. This type of abuse takes place in a larger context of the coerced labor and exploitation of adults. The government sets quotas for farmers to meet and pays them fixed prices for their crops, and requires all state employees work on the harvest. Those who cannot for reasons of work or health are compelled to hire substitutes. Everywhere, local administrators have called on everyone to turn out and pick cotton, as prices are at an all-time high and the weather has been good so far this year. This sets the stage not only for the use of child labor but also abuse of both children and adults.

This year, human rights groups have been monitoring work in the fields in Uzbekistan's provinces and have found that in some cases, people have been intimidated and beaten to coerce them to work, the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights reports. According to a report from a listener to Radio Ozodlik, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Uzbek Service last month, in Kizirik district, farmers were allegedly beaten by the district prosecutor for not meeting the cotton quota. Farmers say they were unable to meet the quota because they didn't have sufficient fertilizers or diesel oil, and were also ordered to report to meetings frequently, taking them away from the fields. Radio Ozodlik attempted to check the story of the assaults, but the prosecutor refused to comment.

As in past years, in Ferghana, factory workers have been taken away from their jobs and sent to spend several weeks in the fields, taking their own blankets and mattresses, and commandeering commuter buses to drive them to the fields. Early in the season, reported that soldiers were not being sent to pick cotton, as they were being redeployed to sensitive border areas following unrest in Kyrgyzstan. But reported October 5 that soldiers in Surkhandarya were sent to gather the harvest in the Syrdarya region, and ordered to pick 100 kilograms a day or face punishment. Policemen were also went from Surkhandarya to Jizzakh, but only had quotas of 40 kilograms a day, Radio Ozodlik reported. Doctors, teachers, even an entire soccer team have been sent to pick cotton in Karshi.

In Jizzakh, human rights activist Bakhtiyor Khamroev also reported that starting September 30, by order of the local authorities, all the markets were closed during the day, apparently to force people to go pick cotton. But merchants hired day laborers and go on quietly trading in the streets. The local administrators also announced that all newlyweds and their guests from both families must collect 10 kilograms of cotton for the campaign.

Also in Jizzakh, in the Bahmal District teachers say the local district head, Akmal Abdullayev, has beaten teachers in the effort to force them to pick cotton, reported. The regional administration has denied the allegation. Abdullayev was said to scold teachers at a meeting in neighboring Mirzachul District for poor performance at the harvest. Reports said he then knocked over two teachers and kicked them, and even forced them to kiss the shoes of a local prosecutor and a police officer. When they refused, the teachers were subjected to more kicks.

When a villager named Botir Artikbayev refused to obey Abdullayev, the district head was said to demand his resignation and cut off the power supply to his village. As of October 12, Abdullayev reportedly cut off electricity to 21 villages in Bahmal District because they failed to meet their cotton targets. As the district does not produce cotton, the villagers travelled to Mirzachul, 180 kilometers from their homes, to pick cotton. An aide to the regional governor denied the reports of these abuses.

In the Andijan region, people have been called up to pick cotton for 10 days. This year, authorities have tightened up the rules for exemption, so that even nursing mothers and the sick and old are being required to pick cotton, reports. Although the cotton quota has been reduced, the number of brigades of people have been increased. Those who refuse on health or other grounds are threatened with loss of employment.

A man from Angor District in Surkhandarya who withheld his name reported to Radio Ozodlik that teachers, elementary school students, women on maternity leave, and pensioners were all being forced to work on the harvest. The women and pensioners were reportedly not given their social security payments until they picked 10 kilograms of cotton or pay 1000-1500 soums. He also reported that people were being forced to work at night by the light of a tractor, because the farmers were unable to fulfill their daily targets. He said the mayor, prosecutor and police were supervising work in the fields. Radio Ozodlik contacted the mayor's office who said he preferred not to answer questions over the phone, and that his office had strict regulations for handling pensions.

On October 15, the government declared that the quota for this year had been reached, reported, with 3,400,000 tons harvested, an increase of 4 percent over last year. At the cotton fair October 13-14, contracts valued at $150 million were signed. China's Tianjin Cotton Exchange Market and the Uzbek company Uzmarkazimpeks created a joint venture to sell 100,000 tons of Uzbek cotton in China, says