25 september 2017

Uzbekistan’s new leader fails his first test

One year after the death of Islam Karimov, the continued use of forced labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields shows how slow the pace of change really is.

While President Shavkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan tucked into his third course at a New York dinner with wealthy American businessmen on Wednesday night, university students back home were preparing for a long day in the fields plucking cotton.

Despite the president’s promise to outlaw forced labour in the country from which I am exiled, institutions all over the country received an order to send their able-bodied staff and students to harvest cotton. September should be the start of the academic year. Instead, faculties, schools, kindergartens, as well as companies and hospitals, are emptying out as employees are ordered into the sweltering heat to work 14-hour days.

One year ago, the 78-year-old former president, Islam Karimov, died suddenly after suffering a brain hemorrhage. He had been in office for 27 years, presiding over one of the world’s most repressive and secretive regimes. Thousands of innocent people were imprisoned for their politics or their religion. Dissidents were tortured and murdered. Others, like myself, fled in fear of another prison term.

The early actions of the new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, have encouraged optimism among many of my compatriots and western politicians. He is improving relations with neighbouring countries, has liberalised currency regulations and allowed international human rights defenders to visit Uzbekistan. These are all steps we should welcome. In New York for the UN General Assembly this week, he is hosting a business forum with leading US businesses and members of the Trump administration, hoping that his early actions will tempt US businessmen to invest in Uzbekistan.

However, it remains unclear whether Mirziyoyev is willing to address the systemic problems which continue to facilitate wide-scale violations of human rights in our country.

One such violation is the use of mass forced labour, with about one million people forced to work in the cotton sector every year, under threat of losing their jobs or worse. This unique practice, in which the population is forced to subsidise the cotton sector has remained unchanged since the Soviet era. A few days ago I received a message from a schoolteacher in the south-eastern corner of the country: “This year the press reported that teachers would not have to collect cotton, which we were very pleased about,” wrote the teacher, who I dare not name for fear of retribution.

“Today, we were suddenly told: ‘Be ready.’ An order came from the local authorities that you will have to go out and pick cotton tomorrow.”

This is not an isolated incident. The organisation I lead, the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF), has observed that educational and medical institutions throughout the country are again dispatching unwilling workers to the cotton fields. In August, official media published statements by several officials that teachers and medical workers would not be mobilized to harvest cotton. Several regional hokims, or local authority figures, also publicly promised that teachers and medical workers would be spared the cotton draft.

Yet it now seems these were empty promises. My organisation has gathered evidence that, from mid-August, the heads of schools and kindergartens once again had to send a list of their employees to the local administrations in command of cotton production.

Fast becoming a distinctive feature of the 2017 cotton season is the requirement for written confirmation of “voluntary participation in the collection of cotton” from employees of government institutions. In some cases, employees were allegedly encouraged to make a collective decision at meetings, where they took they agreed to participate in the cotton harvest to help the country before the rains begin.

The obligation to collect cotton applies not only to employees of state organizations, but also to private entrepreneurs. During the cotton harvest, tax inspectors go to the markets and collect what they call “cotton money” from medium and small traders.

As reported by Radio Ozodlik, private entrepreneurs from the Tashkent region are being forced to sign statements in which they agree to participate in the cotton harvest. According to a businessmen from Bekabad who was interviewed by the radio, officials of the hokimiyat are forcing businessmen, builders and market traders to sign statements in which they commit to participating in the collection of cotton.

Let’s be clear that what is happening in Uzbekistan is illegal. This is mass forced labour that cannot be excused or justified. Collecting cotton in 35 degree heat is grueling work. Each year UGF documents deaths in the cotton fields.

The conditions are perhaps best made clear by a nurse who wrote to me last week:

“Yesterday evening, the head of our department asked me to come to the hospital at 5:30 am. I didn’t expect that and I wasn’t ready for the field. I had to leave my children or find someone else who could go out to the field. I was left there all day long. They brought water to the field late and I suffered sunstroke during the day. Worse, the bus to collect us arrived late too.”

Western leaders listening to president Mirziyoyev’s grand pledges should remember he was an integral part of a Karimov government that never fulfilled its promises. They should look at actions rather than words. The cotton harvest was his first big test. It’s one he has failed.

Click here to sign the UGF’s petition urging Uzbekistan’s president Shavkat Mirziyoyev against using forced student labour in the country’s cotton fields.

The author Umida Niyazova is the head of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights. She is an Uzbek journalist and human rights activists living in Germany.

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