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 Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan.  Below for a selection of the evidence of forced labour in these and other districts, as well as information on cases of illness and even death resulting from the state’s poor organisation of harvest labour.

October 2009

Three hundred fifty medical workers split into six groups took part in harvesting cotton in Yangibazar district of Khorezm region. They were ordered to pick a quota of 60 kg each per day, totalling over 15 tons daily.  One hundred fifty of the medical workers from the Yangibazar district central hospital were assigned to one Yangibazar 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 autumn [when they are out picking cotton], the level of care provided to patients with infectious diseases is lowered.

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On 13 October an employee of the Khorezm Oncological Centre, 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 centre of Urgench.  She was hospitalized in critical condition.

Usually G.U.’s husband walked her home from work, but, he could not on that day.  After this incident her husband’s family cut off any contact with G.U.  In Uzbekistan, especially in rural areas, because of certain cultural and religious traditions and the mentality, the victim is usually blamed in these circumstances, which only intensifies her trauma. Her husband had previously requested that her employer, the Oncological Centre, exempt her from picking cotton, but the Chief Doctor (Svetlana Ibragimova Palvanova) refused, citing the need to fulfil the district governor’s instructions to mobilize all workers to harvest the cotton.

The local police detained the suspected attacker shortly thereafter, and are currently investigating the crime.

The victim continues to experience traumatic effects, the future impact of which is difficult to predict.  Nevertheless, G.U. is not planning to sue her employer who failed to provide safe conditions during the work day.  Labour 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 superiors, as the 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 Centre is doing its utmost to prevent the discovery of any written orders given 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 the road.  In addition to the doctor, two hospital employees were hospitalised in critical condition and two other bus passengers were injured.

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The Association “Human Rights in Central Asia” has concluded that the organisers 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 Labour Code, which came into force on 1 April 1996, contains more than thirty articles directly related to workers’ 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 the age 18.

The last list of territories where work conditions are prononced 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.
Labour 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 Labour Unions of Uzbekistan serves at the same time as a member of the government.  This crudely violates the fundamental principles of organizing a labour union – the independence of unions from the executive branch of the government, from local government, and other social and political groups.  It is for this reason that the Federation of Trade Unions of Uzbekistan 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 labour 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 Autonomous 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 or to document their likely cause.
© Association for Human Rights in Central Asia
© Association for Human Rights in Central Asia