With the arrival of November, the serfs trickle home from Turkmenistan’s cotton fields. But a culture of state employees being forced to labor in menial jobs continues throughout the year, says an annual monitoring report. As they wait for the fields to bloom again with “white gold,” low-skilled municipal workers such as janitors and security guards are obliged to do free housekeeping for Turkmen bureaucrats, and to travel to faraway cities to participate in cleanups for the state, the report alleges.
Turkmenistan’s Central Asian neighbor Uzbekistan is usually the focus of international flak for mobilizing its citizens – notably students – to harvest cotton each fall. But totalitarian Turkmenistan, which produces more cotton per person than Uzbekistan, is just as keen on exploiting its bloated public sector for field hands, according to the October 14 briefing, published by Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN), a service run by Turkmen exiles who partner with Amnesty International and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.
Drawing on domestic accounts, the second annual report provides an important insight into Turkmenistan’s labor market. It pays particular attention to Turkmenistan’s low-paid state employees who have limited means to defend their rights in a country where de facto unemployment is high and cowed government workers can be replaced easily.
Sure enough, life for this demographic – which includes teachers and nurses for the harvest – is worst during picking season. During this year’s harvest “the working and living conditions of the forced laborers were abysmal, with people often having to sleep in the open air, drink ditch water and bathe in irrigation channels,” the report noted. Buying one’s way out of this purgatory is possible, at least for teachers; some hire workers at rates of $3.50-$7.00 per day to take their place. (The cost of hiring is usually borne by the teachers themselves rather than school administrations, which understandably find the cotton season’s demands on their staff an inconvenience, the report adds.)
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is generally mum on the accusations of forced labor, but according to the report, his communist-style production targets leave subordinates in no doubt over the need to mobilize the masses to harvest. This year: “After President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov chided the Lebap regional government for the slow pace of the cotton harvest, it has been all hands on deck.”
Once the harvest is gathered, Turkmenistan finds other jobs outside regular hours for state employees: Janitors, for example, “under threat of dismissal, are forced to clean up the apartments and homes of various bureaucrats; to tend their gardens, their plots of land and their domestic livestock; to unload bricks; to prepare the grass for winter for the livestock or the brushwood for clay ovens; to build chicken-coops, to paint, to whitewash.”
The forthcoming second part of ATN’s report is expected to look at how officials force workers from the country’s beleaguered private sector to harvest cotton for the state.