Fri, Feb 08, 2019 - Page 3 News List

Uzbek teachers and nurses still being forced to clean streets, harvest wheat

Thomson Reuters Foundation, LONDON

Nurses and teachers in Uzbekistan are being forced by officials to clean streets, plant trees and harvest wheat or face the sack, fines or pay cuts, despite a government drive to end state-imposed work, labor rights groups said yesterday.

Under international pressure, including boycotts by fashion giants, the Central Asian country has pointed to its efforts to end the use of forced labor by adults and children in its cotton industry — where it is one of the world’s top exporters.

However, public sector workers are still forced by the government to carry out other manual labor, the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights and the US-based Solidarity Center said in a report revealed exclusively by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The report — based on interviews with about 260 people such as teachers and medics — also found that taking civil servants away from their real work hurts services, including healthcare.

“There is a tradition, or a culture, in Uzbekistan of people being forced to do unpaid, public work,” forum director Umida Niyazova said. “Cotton is not the only sector where forced labor exists.”

The Uzbek Ministry of Labor and Social Protection of Population said the government had adopted regulations aimed at preventing forced work, with authorities instructed to “eliminate deficiencies in the work of state institutions” and to “completely eradicate forced labor.”

“For many years, the existence of forced labor in our country was hidden,” First Deputy Minister of Labor and Social Protection of Population Erkin Mukhitdinov said via e-mail.

“Today, we openly acknowledge that there are still cases ... in cotton picking as well as street cleaning and other areas,” he said.

Uzbek Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov in 2017 said that thousands of students, teachers and health workers would no longer take part in the annual cotton harvest — the world’s largest recruitment operation, with about 2.6 million temporary pickers each year.

The UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO) said in November last year that 93 percent of people involved in last year’s cotton harvest had worked voluntarily, and the systematic recruitment of civil servants had ended.

However, the forum said at the time that state-imposed labor was still “massive.”

Although the government has repeatedly denounced forced labor, local officials regard civil servants as a constant source of labor to fulfil regional needs or centrally imposed state quotas of items such as wheat and silk, the report said.

“Local officials are stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Solidarity Center program officer Abby McGill said. “They are told to not mobilize people for forced labor, but are still given quotas and know they’ll be punished for not meeting them.

“Uzbekistan’s solutions to this problem are too narrow ... they need a human rights-based approach,” she said.

Ending forced labor and protecting workers is going to require reforms such as independent unions, complaint mechanisms and access to remedies for victims, the rights groups and the ILO said.

The ILO said that last year it trained more than 200 labor inspectors in Uzbekistan on how to investigate forced labor, and helped the ministry to set up worker hotlines.

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