Early every day, groups of women dressed in vividly colored overcoats muster in two locations in Kokand, a city in Uzbekistan’s Ferghana Valley.
Throughout the morning, they are picked up, either alone or in small groups, by people looking for extra hands to do some construction work or farming. The money they get for their efforts is a precious lifeline in a region where unemployment is pervasive.
Mardikor is a composite Persian word that stands for a day laborer. Mardikors are traditionally a strictly male class, but with the economy in an unremitting funk, women are also resorting to this day-laboring way of life.
Nafisa is 40 years old and has only a basic education. Her husband scrapes together some occasional work in the city’s central market, but with four children to feed, his income does not meet all their needs. “Usually they hire us for farming work – digging and weeding plots and orchards, gathering fruit on private plots or farms, cleaning manure from cattle sheds. The standard fee is [around $5] for a day’s work,” Nafisa told EurasiaNet.org.
The surnames of the women interviewed by EurasiaNet.org have been withheld at their request.
As a rule of thumb, a daily fee is typically equivalent to what it would cost to buy one kilogram of beef. Women of all ages have joined the ranks of the mardikors. Girls straight out of school, women with young children, and the elderly.
Hilola, 17, graduated from secondary school last year and is now studying in a pedagogical institute to become a teacher. “I need clothes, copybooks and textbooks. My parents cannot afford to buy me these things as apart from me there are also another four children in the family. Recently, my brother got married and all the money was spent on his wedding. Now dad has gone off again to work in Russia,” Hilola told EurasiaNet.org.
Hilola said she can perform most kinds of farm work – milking cows, sweeping the manure, shucking corn. She said she needed to make about 200,000 sum ($35) to cover the cost of buying study materials.
Mahzuna, a teacher at a school in Kokand, said she hired two middle-aged women and three students from a local institute over the summer to help demolish an old kitchen in her courtyard. During the day, the women used hammers and crowbars to tear down the walls of the building, dismantling the structure brick by brick. The women were given two square meals and paid around $18 each for their trouble, Mahzuna said.
“We have female mardikors in every neighborhood. They are trusted more than male mardikors. Women are more conscientious about doing the work, and they will agree to do it for less money,” Mahzuna said. “All the money they make is taken back home. The men are liable to drink it away, or spend it on their own needs.”
With time, people in the Ferghana Valley have become used to the idea of women entering what are traditionally considered male spheres. If at the start of the last decade, muster points for female mardikors existed only in the larger cities – such as Kokand, Namangan and Andijan – now you can see them even in villages. Mardikor bazaars, as the laborer muster points are known, are a Ferghana Valley phenomenon and remain alien to southern and western regions of Uzbekistan.
The very word mardikor embodied a somewhat archaic Uzbek concept that had largely fallen out of use by the 1940s – a time when the Soviet government pursued the effective abolition of unemployment. The word made a comeback – as did the concept itself – toward the latter part of the Soviet era and has occupied an ever-growing role ever since.
“If they start withholding our salaries at work, or my husband loses his job, then we too will become mardikors,” Mahzuna said.
The social status of mardikors is ambivalent.
While urbanites are inclined to look down on people forced to do casual work, they acknowledge that the cheap labor the mardikors carry out is indispensable. City authorities also regularly draw on this pool of labor to perform hasty cosmetic work before major public events.
As they are afforded no legal protection, mardikors are easy targets for the police, who routinely harass them for bribes.
By and large, the official response to mardikors is to pretend they are not there. Authorities are determined to disguise the scale of the unemployment problem. According to the State Statistics Committee, in the period from January to June last year, unemployment in Uzbekistan was around 5.2 percent of the economically active population. In numerical terms that would amount to around 725,000 people. But state statistics only reflect those people who formally go through the official labor exchange, which is very far from everybody. No unemployment benefits are in place for those without jobs.
Accurate data concerning joblessness in general, and among women in particular, in Uzbekistan is impossible since this information is actively hidden by the state.
A way to get an anecdotal sense of the situation is by trawling the hangout areas of mardikors in the city markets. The evidence is not encouraging.
Writer and journalist Marfua Tohtahadzhaeva learned about female unemployment at first hand while doing research into the growing mardikor phenomenon. Tohtahadzhaeva said that one problem is that since the authorities are hiding the scale of the shortage of employment, there is no immediate incentive to create government initiatives to get more women into work.
That leaves women particularly vulnerable to all manner of abuse.
“The female mardikor markets are the reverse side of the real economy in this country. There are many problems. Women do not have their legal rights protected, and there is no way of keeping tabs on the employers. Women do men’s work and sometimes they incur injuries or get maimed. And they are often singled out for sexual abuse,” Tohtahadzhaeva told EurasiaNet.org.