Uzbekistan Cotton Harvest 2019 Chronicle of Forced Labor

November 11, 2019

November, 2019

October 1 – 30, 2019 

 

Loading Cotton, Andijan Region, October 2019. © UGF

The Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF) continues to monitor the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan. In this issue of the Chronicle, UGF presents only a small fraction of the information on forced mobilization of cotton pickers collected by human rights activists and published by Radio Ozodlik, the most popular independent media outlet in the Uzbek language.

 

While most cotton pickers work voluntarily, UGF has documented the usual methods of forcing hundreds of employees from public organizations to pick cotton or extorting people to pay for replacement pickers. Employees from all over the country (with the exception of large cities and some district centers) and people from various professions complain that they have to pick cotton or pay for someone to do it in their place and are afraid to refuse.

 

Although the national cotton quota was fulfilled as early as the beginning of October in the Andijan and Ferghana regions, the cotton harvest in some districts of these regions is still ongoing in an effort to help the underperforming districts meet their cotton quotas.

 

Radio Ozodlik, which has an extensive network of sources, publishes messages from cotton pickers on a daily basis about coercion and extortion related to the cotton harvest in its special “Pakhtagram” section.

 

One letter published by Ozodlik said:

 

“We are writing from the Ferghana region. Although the region has fulfilled the plan, the hokim gathers all the heads of sectors of all districts at 6 a.m. (Note: each district in Uzbekistan is divided into 4 sectors, for which a hokim, a prosecutor, the chief of the tax inspectorate, and the chief of police have responsibility). In order to arrive at the hokimiyat by 6 a.m. from remote districts, it is necessary to leave home at 4 a.m. We are very tired of such meetings. He (the hokim – Ed.) holds conference calls on cotton until midnight, and then in the morning, sets up another meeting. But we have fulfilled our cotton quota.”

 

The employees of “Vatanparvar” (Patriot), the organization for assistance to the country’s defense, wrote to Ozodlik that they had been forced to pick cotton since October 19. “Every day a representative of the hokimiyat of the Turakurgon district (Nmangan region) comes to the fields to check the number of pickers from each organization”, the message said.

After publication of this message, the Namangan department of Vatanparvar issued a rebuttal alleging that the publication in Ozodlik was false and constituted “information blackmail”. However, Ozodlik received a letter of thanks from a Vatanparvar employee stating that after Ozodlik’s publication they were returned from cotton fields on November 3. “We were told that if inspectors or journalists come, we should not say that we have been picking cotton.”

 

UGF received a document entitled “Information on the amount of cotton set for public organizations in the Khujaobod district, Andijan region”. The document lists 27 organizations that have to collect 500, 1,000 or 2,000 kg of cotton per day on 21 and 22 October 2019. The organizations that are subject to daily cotton harvest quotas include the following:

 

  • The district hokimiyat
  • The district tax inspectorate
  • The district department of finance
  • Agrobank
  • Halkbank
  • Kishlok Kurilish Bank
  • Hamkorbank
  • The state pension fund
  • A clothing market
  • A food market
  • The district department of employment
  • The district electric grid company
  • The district gas supply company
  • The district department of landscaping
  • The Farmers’ Council
  • The agricultural inspectorate
  • The department of veterinary medicine
  • The silkworm cocoon processing plant
  • The grain reception point
  • The driver training school
  • The department of ecology
  • The cadaster service
  • “Agrokhimhimoja” JSC (chemical fertilizer procurement enterprise)
  • “Agrosugurta” JSC (insurance company)

 

To date, UGF monitors have interviewed about 100 employees of banks, tax inspectorates, farmers and entrepreneurs who complained that they have to find from one to five cotton pickers each. Some complained that the costs are a significant burden as the price of one cotton picker has reached $5 US a day.

 

“I have to hire three pickers and spend 6 million soum. The hokimiyat does not take into account my low income. Where will I get this money from?” a farmer wrote to Radio Ozodlik.

 

In mid-October, heads of regions began sending school and hospital workers to pick cotton. On October 28, UGF monitors spoke to a nurse working at the maternity hospital at the Turtkul District Central Hospital in Karakalpakstan. The nurse says that the staff had to leave every two days to pick cotton or hand in money to hire pickers. Out of 80 maternity hospital employees, 25 workers or people hired by nurses leave every day to pick cotton, she said.

 

Meanwhile a large poster announcing the prohibition of forced labor with the telephone number of a hotline to report complaints is positioned in front of the building of the central hospital. UGF monitors discovered that the hospital staff had already complained about forced labor and that subsequently, Pisheev Yuldashbai, the head of the clinic, which is part of the central district hospital, was fined by the Ministry of Labor inspectorate. His prosecution however has not prevented further hospital staff from having to pick cotton against their will and they continue to be sent to the fields under threat of penalty.

A poster from the Uzbek labor inspectorate on the fence of the general hospital in Turtkul advertising the “feedback mechanism”. It states: Are you being forced to pick cotton or do other work? Call: 1176. October 28, 2019. © UGF

The government has made considerable efforts to raise awareness about the prohibition of forced labor and has erected billboards throughout the country with the number of a hotline to report incidents of forced labor. It seems however, that many people fear reprisals if they report their superiors or local officials. Operators of the hotlines demand the name, contact details and passport details of complainants making anonymity impossible.

 

UGF monitors reported that employees of state organizations in the Pakhtakor district of the Jizzakh region are again being sent to pick cotton. This is despite the fact that in the beginning of October the Ministry of Labor fined the heads of the Halkbank and the financial and pension departments for using forced labor.

 

Employees of “Uzbekenergo” Joint Stock Company during the cotton harvest in Jizzakh region, October 8, 2019. © UGF

 

Since October 20, UGF monitors in Karakalpakstan have documented the involvement of schoolteachers in the cotton harvest. Mobilization of school and hospital staff was recorded in the Nukus, Khujayli and Turtkul districts of Karakalpakstan.

 

A letter published by Radio Ozodlik from October 18 states:

“We are writing from the Hujayali District in Karakalpakstan. In September, by order of the hokim, 42 schools in our district sent 15-20 cotton pickers each. These are school technicians, guards and school librarians. To hide the schools’ participation in the cotton harvest, the schools are disguised as brigades. For example, School No. 31 is listed as “Unit 31” in the cotton bulletins. Because all the cleaners are picking cotton, schoolrooms are covered in dust and students cannot use the library. The school management is only busy with cotton matters from morning to evening.”

 

UGF monitors report that in the Jizzakh region schoolteachers and technicians, including cleaners and guards, were involved in the cotton harvest on Saturdays and Sundays. Teachers from schools close to the cotton fields were also sent to pick cotton on the weekends and on the days when teachers didn’t have classes.  School staff were recruited on the basis of a “voluntary initiative” (hashar). Several teachers in the Pahtakor district in the Jizzakh region told UGF monitors that the school administration was forced to send them to the fields by local government officials.

 

The mass mobilization of public sector workers was also announced in the Khorezm region. Radio Ozodlik has published a series of interviews with Khorezm residents in which they say that mobilization for the cotton harvest is similar to “mobilization for military service”.

 

On October 17, a hokim of the Shavat district in the Khorezm region, held a meeting during which he announced a 10-day “quarantine” for cotton harvesting. Shonazar Ruzmetov, a farmer who attended the meeting, told Ozodlik that it means that all district organizations, without exception, have to send workers to pick cotton for 10 days.

 

Shavat district policemen were also sent to pick cotton: “We have been set a daily quota, but I am not able to fulfill it. I hired a woman to pick cotton for me but I still have to be in the field in case there is an inspection,” an employee of the Internal Affairs Department of the Khorezm Oblast told Ozodlik.

 

The director of a construction company from the village of Beshmerghan in the Shavat district told Ozodlik that this year he hired a group of pickers to pick cotton instead of employees of the company. “However, the hokimiyat ordered me to go to the cotton field too,” he said.

 

Human rights activist Elena Urlaeva, who has visited dozens of cotton fields, reports that during the 2019 cotton season “the state is carrying out a hidden form of coercion and exploitation of people – employees of state services, enterprises and organizations”. A press release of the Human Rights Alliance stated:

 

“On October 13, 2019, during a visit to the cotton field headquarters at school No. 61 in the Urtachyk district in the Tashkent region, where 150 employees of a chemical plant located in the city of Chirchik are stationed, Elena Urlaeva and her colleague Solmaz Akhmedova were attacked by representatives of the plant, who twisted the arms of the activists, preventing them from moving.”

Accommodation for employees of Uzkimyosanoatloyikha (chemical enterprise). Elena Urlaeva, Urtachirchik district,
October 13, 2019. © Elena Urlaeva

 

On October 20, Elena Urlaeva visited the cotton field headquarters under the supervision of the Almalyk city hokim, Usman Rakhimov, and found that employees from the Almalyk city mining and metallurgical plant, employees of the joint Spanish-Uzbek enterprise Ammofos- Maxam, employees of the cadaster service and tax services and employees of banks had been sent to pick cotton. During the harvest of 2018, Ammofos-Maxam came under harsh criticism after a 24-year-old employee died while he had been forcibly deployed to pick cotton.

 

Employees of the mining and metallurgical plants had previously written to Radio Ozodlik telling of how they had been forcibly sent to pick cotton and had had to sign a statement of voluntary participation in the cotton harvest.

 

On November 2, Elena Urlaeva and Solmaz Akhmedova visited the Cotton Information Headquarters in the Chinaz district of the Tashkent region. The activists found clear evidence that the state tax inspectorate has to recruit cotton pickers from among entrepreneurs. The document entitled “Information on the daily amount of cotton to be harvested by enterprises and organizations sent from Yangiyul city to Chinaz district for the cotton harvest 2019” dated October 4, states that the state tax inspectorate was required to recruit 2,300 entrepreneurs for the cotton harvest. The report states that 1,864 entrepreneurs were actually involved, and since the beginning of the cotton season they have harvested about 804 tons of cotton.

 

“Information on the daily amount of cotton to be harvested by enterprises and organizations sent from Yangiyul city to Chinaz district for the cotton harvest 2019”, October 4, 2019. © Elena Urlaeva

 

UGF monitors spoke to a student at the Tashkent Institute for Fire Safety of the Uzbek Ministry for Emergencies, who said that the entire institute had been sent to the Zarbdar district of the Jizzakh region since October 3. Students from this institute are mobilized to pick cotton every year for more than two months from the beginning to the end of the cotton harvest. Last year, students harvested cotton until November 25.

 

In a letter to Radio Ozodlik the students wrote on October 2, 2019:

“We are cadets at the Institute for Fire Safety and we have been forced to pick cotton. We are in the village of Toshtescan in the Jizzakh region. Our bosses told us that if strangers ask, we shouldn’t say that we are students but that we came here to pick cotton voluntarily. We were given a picking quota of 120 kg per day. We came here just two days ago, and many people have already got sick. We are begging you to help us. We are in a very difficult situation. Nobody listens to us, so we are addressing you.”

 

In the photo, sent by the students, they hide their faces for fear of the management of the Institute.

Students from the Institute for Fire Safety, October 2, 2019. © Ozodlik

 

Cadets and teachers from the Academy of the Ministry for the Interior were also sent to pick cotton in the Arnasai district of the Jizzakh region. Cadets are forced to buy cotton from local residents for 1,200 soum per kilo in order to meet the daily quota (80-100 kg) of cotton but they sell it to the state for only 1,000 soum per kilo.

 

Elena Urlaeva’s placard reads: We demand the urgent recall of cadets from the Academy of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and employees of the Ministry of Internal Affairs from the cotton fields. They are being forced to pick 80-100 kg of cotton a day. We demand an investigation into fatalities and injuries in the cotton fields. Tashkent, October 7, 2019. © Elena Urlaeva

 

Every year, the military and conscripts of short military service are traditionally mobilized to the cotton harvest: “We are writing from the Akkurgan district of the Tashkent region. We were supposed to do a one-month military training and instead we were sent to the cotton fields. Soldiers are having a hard time picking cotton. We only sleep 4-5 hours a day. We did not expect military service to only consist of picking cotton”, the conscripts wrote. Conscripts pay the state for their military training.

 

“We are undergoing military training on a cotton field,” another conscript from the Shavat district in the Khorezm region wrote to Ozodlik. “On October 15, we arrived for one month’s military service. We were tricked and told that there would be real military training. I paid 4,256,000 soum (approx. $450 US). As soon as we arrived at the military unit we were told to sign a statement in which we pledged to collect 100 kg of cotton every day. We wake up at 4:45 in the morning. At the meetings we are told to pick cotton better. Those who don’t pick cotton won’t get a military ID and they will be kicked out on their ass. Two days ago, there was a meeting where they said that if we met journalists, we shouldn’t answer any questions. They said that anyone speaking to a journalist would not get their military ID. There is almost no cotton in the fields. We pay money to fulfil the quota. 1,500 soum ($0.15 US) per 1 kg of cotton. Those who do not fulfil the quota are punished. They make you run between the fields and do push-ups. We pick cotton until 7 pm. In the evening we are humiliated with various insults. They call us all sorts of things here. Please, is there anyone who can help us? We are very tormented. We are here for military training. No military exercises are held here. Does the president know how the training of the defenders of the homeland is really being done?

Military personnel picking cotton, Shavat district, October 15, 2019. © Ozodlik

Inmates from prison colonies are sent to pick cotton every year. A brother of a former prisoner told UGF that the cotton harvest is the most difficult time, as prisoners are required to meet the daily quota of 80-100 kg per day. If the quota is not met, prisoners are beaten.

 

Radio Ozodlik published a letter in which the wife of a prisoner of colony No. 48, located in the Ahangaran district of the Tashkent region, complained that the “owner” (the chief of the prison colony – Ed.) beats her husband for not being able to collect the quota of 80 kg a day.

 

Human rights activist Elena Urlaeva also reported about the beatings of prisoners for failing to pick the required amount of cotton. On October 27, Urlaeva and Solmaz Akhmedova, her colleague from the Human Rights Alliance, picketed the building of the Ministry of Internal Affairs demanding an end to the beatings of prisoners in Colony No. 50. The human rights activists handed over evidence of the beatings of three prisoners who had been harvesting cotton in the Jizzakh region to the chief of the penal administration.

 

Elena Urlaeva picketing near the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The poster reads: We demand an investigation into the beatings
of prisoners of colony No. 50 Sherzod Yusupov and Bobur Usmanov. Tashkent, October 27, 2019. © Elena Urlaeva

 

On October 13, the first tragic deaths of the 2019 cotton season occurred. Radio Ozodlik and the Human Rights Alliance published information about the deaths of two conscripts sent to pick cotton instead of undergoing military training.

 

Two conscripts who had been sent to pick cotton in the Bayavut district of the Syrdarya region were hit by a tractor on October 13 and died on the spot. They had been called up for military service from the Fergana region. Information about the death of the two conscripts in the cotton field was confirmed by the Syrdarya Regional Health Department. “As far as we know, two young soldiers, who were just over 20 years old, had been sleeping in a ditch in the cotton field and were crushed by a tractor carrying cotton. They were both in military uniform. It was an accident that no one could have foreseen,” an employee of the regional health department told Ozodlik.

 

On January 2018, President Mirziyoyev stated, “The hokims will be not dealing with cotton. They will be busy with education and culture.”

 

These statements however have not changed the reality. Throughout the entire 2019 cotton harvest, hokims have had to organize the cotton harvest and ensure that the national cotton quota imposed on each region and district of the country is fulfilled.

 

Radio Ozodlik published an audio recording of the dialogue that took place in a cotton field in the village of Jeynov in the Mirishkor district of the Kashkadarya region, where the head of the district, Ravshan Kamilov beat and insulted farmers for not cultivating, processing and watering cotton on time.

 

In the audio recording, Ravshan Kamilov can be heard humiliating local farmers for 30 minutes. Sources who sent this audio tape to Ozodlik confirmed that it had been recorded at the end of August 2019. Ozodlik was able to identify and communicate with two of the farmers who had been insulted and beaten by the hokim. Both confirmed the incident but asked not to reveal their names.

 

In the audio recording, Ravshan Kamilov can be heard shouting insults at one of the farmers. “Your fate is in my hands! I fuck**d your mother. Why didn’t you do this (sounds of blows – Ed.). Why didn’t you cultivate cotton? (sounds of slaps in the face – Ed.). Why not? Why not!!! Did you go and fu** your mother, you bastard? I fu**ed your mother! Hey, asshole, why didn’t you fu**ing cultivate cotton?” (more sounds of blows – Ed.).

 

A farmer’s voice can be heard pleading, “Don’t beat me, don’t beat me.”

 

The hokim then speaks in a particularly insulting tone about women in general and compares them to the men: “You are a man, you wear pants. They are women, fu** them, put on pants and say one thing before lunch, and in the afternoon another. That’s why they are women. That’s why they are compared to chickens. A man should be a man, brave…”

 

In July 2018, a 50-year-old farmer, Sherali Davronov from Mirishkor District, hung himself on the doorstep of his house. According to his relatives, this happened after the farmer was beaten by the Ravshan Komilov during a meeting because of his failure to meet the wheat plan. According to residents of the Mirishkor district, quoted by Ozodlik, Ravshan Komilov boasted of his closeness to the president.

 

Beatings and insults of farmers by Uzbek officials are rife and have often been reported:

 

Radio Ozodlik published another recording of a conversation, in which Hakim Tuichiyev, the deputy hokim of the Farish district in the Fergana region insults and humiliates the head of the district branch of the Halkbank, Bobir Obilkosimov.

 

In an interview with Ozodlik, the former banker reported that at the end of September he received a task from Tuichiyev to find 20 cotton pickers. “I run the bank. I have a lot of work to do and he demanded that I find 20 pickers. The deputy hokim shouldn’t give me tasks that aren’t part of my duties,” Bobur Obilkosimov said in an interview with Ozodlik on October 31.

 

Tuichiyev admitted to insulting the banker and apologized for his personal attacks in a conversation with Ozodlik, but added that he believed that Obilkosimov’s dismissal was justified because the banker had been given the task of bringing in 20 pickers and had failed to do so. In addition, the banker had also failed to attend the meeting on cotton harvesting held at 7 a.m. on September 30.

 

In September, 2,100 firefighters were sent to pick cotton in the Jizzakh region on the written order of the acting Minister of Emergency Situations:

 

“We are writing from Andijan. Our chief, Karimov Jasurbek, ordered 100 firefighters to travel to the Jizzakh region. We are told not to complain and not to say anything, otherwise they threaten us with dismissal. Now they create lists of pickers to travel to Ulugnor, the most disadvantaged district. Our salary is not high. Previously we worked one shift and had four days break, and now we have to pick cotton every day. Nobody listens to us.”

 

Ozodlik received a letter from the Koson district in the Kashkadarya region on the subject of extortion. “Workers have to hand in money for cotton. Hired pickers agree to go to pick cotton for 40-50,000 soum (approx. $4-5 US). We either need to hire a picker or go to the cotton fields for at least 15 days. They say if someone refuses, he should write a letter of resignation right away. We say that a law prohibiting forced labor has been passed, but we are told that there is an order from the hokim.

 

Independent media outlets are publishing many photos of cotton pickers that show poor living conditions. “Because of insufficient accommodation, men and women have to sleep in the same room,” wrote the employees of Donmahsulot, a government-owned grain company in Namangan.

 

In a letter to Ozodlik published on October 7, an employee explains:

 

“The management of Uzdonmahsulot, a government-owned grain and seed company, is forcing workers to pick cotton. Here, women and men have to sleep in the same room. Those who do not go to pick cotton have to pay 400,000 soum (approx. $40 US) every 10 days. Even if you pay the money, you still have to pick cotton on Saturdays and Sundays. Our manager instructed the human resources department to request resignation letters from those employees who did not pay or participate in the cotton harvest. Two employees were dismissed because they did not hand in the money. They were not allowed into the office and were humiliated by having to stand outside at the entrance.”

 

On October 17, secondary schools in the Khujayli district in Karakalpakstan began sending schoolteachers to pick cotton. According to the school director, the district hokim and his deputy demanded that 15-20 workers per day be sent to pick cotton under threat of dismissal.

 

Another school director in the Hujayli district said that when the cotton season started, the schools sent technical staff to pick cotton, but on October 17, the district school directors were invited to the office of the deputy hokim, Seitmuratov Kural, where they were told to double the number of pickers from each school. “So now we have to send teachers to pick cotton,” the school director said in an interview with Ozodlik.

 

UGF will continue monitoring forced labor until the end of the cotton season which is likely to last until mid-November.

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