It claims to be the Motherland of Prosperity but Turkmenistan’s economy is in chaos and its financial system isn’t working. Many Turkmen begin their day not with a cup of coffee or journey to work, but with a trip to the shops at 6 a.m. to buy a kilo of sugar, as it may disappear from the shelves later, or to stand in line outside the bank.
If the ultimate goal is the eradication of all forced labor in Uzbekistan, Tashkent hasn’t yet achieved it. While most observers concede progress on this front, and welcome greater openness on the part of Uzbek authorities in discussing the cotton industry, the reality remains that some people in Uzbekistan are forced to pick cotton and state policies aid and abet this exploitation. When the overall theme is progress, it becomes all the more important to keep track of persistent challenges and underlying causes; it’s vital to continue open conversations about both.
Last month the Central Asian nation of Turkmenistan overtook North Korea to become most repressive media environment in the world, according to the Reporters Without Borders annual Press Freedom Index. The media watchdog described the Central Asian nation as a news “black hole” where all media is controlled by the government and where the few independent journalists working for foreign-based news sites have been harassed, arrested, and tortured. Just 15 percent of the country can get online, and even then the version of the internet they have access to is highly censored.
In the last few years, the government of Uzbekistan has undertaken reforms aimed at ending forced labor in its cotton industry, some of which have resulted in a significant reduction of the number of citizens forced into the fields. However, the root structural problems of the system which continue to incentivize and drive forced labor on a massive scale remain unaddressed. In fact, Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights monitored the 2018 cotton harvest and estimates that on November 12th, 2018 alone, between 400,000 and 800,000 individuals were forced to pick cotton by the government. Public sector workers such as military personnel, firefighters, small entrepreneurs, bank employees, and factory workers bore the burden of picking cotton or were extorted to pay for pickers to take their place.
A video was published on the Ozodlik Radio website showing how doctors provided first aid to the farmer who was unconscious in an ambulance. The voices of the farmer’s relatives can be heard explaining to the paramedics that the man had drunk vinegar before trying to hang himself. The farmer’s father, explaining the reasons for his son’s suicide attempt, says that “the hokim subjected his son to unbearable suffering.”
IndustriALL Global Union affiliates in Kyrgyzstan are demanding the withdrawal of a draft law on trade unions, which significantly undermines independent trade unions.
Radio Ozodlik spoke with farmers from the Pap district of the Namangan region, who reported that the local authorities had ordered the destruction of their crop of vegetables and melons, in order to free the land for cotton planting. According to the farmers, several of them who had spent all their money on planting vegetables on their land was left without a means of income.
zbek farmers Nargiza Mamajonova and Zuhra Azizova have complained to the Ozodlik radio that the state has confiscated their land. Both women said that they had rented abandoned land and invested all their money to establish successful farms. Today they are left with nothing.
The report is based on 70 in-depth interviews, including with officials, 300 field visits, and monitoring of more than 100 farms. It documents both the significant progress made by the Uzbek government, as well as ongoing forced labor due to structural factors that remain largely in place. Driven by a commitment to reform at the highest levels of government, there is significant transition underway which is reflected in some encouraging signs of progress, but the 2018 harvest showcased the enormous challenges remaining in Uzbekistan’s efforts to end forced labor.