Human Trafficking and Forced Labour in Uzbekistan
From the human trafficking perspective, global capitalism has divided the world into three categories: suppliers, receivers, and regions of both. As with most Asian countries, Uzbekistan belongs to the first category. Although its forced labour in cotton harvesting is quite well known, much less is known of the poverty driving many Uzbekistanis into work migration and forced labour. The authors, researchers from economically ‘rich’ nations, had the rare opportunity to conduct scientific interviews in Uzbekistan with persons in different positions and occupations, including victims of forced labour and social workers in NGOs. The interviews describe processes and elements typical of forced labour relations, while reflecting the structural dependencies inherent in global capitalism. Although some social workers pursue only governmental interests, others rescue victims, support them comprehensively, and initiate structural changes. They deserve support in demanding fair migration and trading laws, spreading information, raising funds, changing consumer attitudes, and reducing discrimination.
Throughout the world, an estimated 40 million persons live in forced labour (ILO, 2016). According to the UN’s ‘Convention against Transnational Organized Crime’, a human trafficking victim’s consent is irrelevant if the person is recruited by fraud, deception, etc. As Paz- Fuchs (2016) emphasizes, often, victims are not free to terminate employment relationships. In the ILO’s Abolition of Forced Labour Convention (1957) economic dependence is not considered (Ollus, 2015:230); nonetheless, the ‘background conditions’ ‘driving’ individuals to enter conditions of servitude, forced labour or slavery’ are important (Paz-Fuchs 2016:773). This calls attention to the interests and profitable circumstances of the exploiters as well (Crane, 2013).
Little is known in Western countries about Central Asian states after breaking up of the Soviet Union. In Uzbekistan, living conditions worsened tremendously. The cotton-based economy declined, and the industry collapsed owing to lack of technical knowledge and skilled workers. A few elites profit from unemployment, underemployment, and poverty due to low wages and forced labour. Governmental efforts to reduce forced labour are impeded by factors inherent in global capitalism, forcing poor persons to accept any income- promising work either within or outside the country.
In addition to analysis of the structural preconditions of forced labour, it is indispensable to listen to the voices of victims to perceive what social workers do, what their limitations are, and how they could improve their contribution to reduce human trafficking and forced labour.
Based on semi-structured interviews with social workers, other professionals, and trafficking and forced labour victims in Uzbekistan in 2017, this article focuses on empirical data to enhance scientific knowledge about concrete features in a rather inaccessible field. From more than ten interviews, three were selected to be presented here. Although similar cases are frequent, the interviews do not claim to be representative. For the informants’ safety, details of the settings are omitted.
Case Studies Victim X:
X is a disabled middle-aged man whose impairment makes it impossible for him to support himself in Uzbekistan. Since he was told he could earn much higher wages in Russia and his brother had indeed succeeded there, X left for Russia when a Korean man offered to accompany him. When he began working as a shepherd, his passport was taken for registration— but it was never returned. After about five months without payment, one day, when X was tending to the cows as his boss had ordered him, the boss’s van burnt down. X suspected the boss had started the fire to force X to stay for many years as he would not have been able to raise the amount the boss demanded for the van. X fought with the boss about the liability for the lost van. He left gladly when three other workers looking for another workplace jointly offered to help X.
The new boss, referring to the missing passport, did not pay either. X realized that he had been deceived again. Despite his desperate situation, he could not expect any support from the police—he could be arrested for staying in Russia without a passport, have to offer bribes, or be taken to another deceiving boss. Therefore, X gave up earning his living himself. He phoned his sister to request help to return home without having to endure any further physical or economic damage. X’s sister turned to the Uzbek police, who had begun rescuing their countrymen who were fraudulently deprived of their passport in another country. She advised X to contact an NGO that was helping trafficked persons escape.
With the help of this NGO, X finally managed to return home and even began a small business. He now rears laying hens, selling one or two eggs a day. Still, because of lack of money, he has not yet obtained a new passport, which is a precondition for disabled people to receive financial support. Nonetheless, X feels relieved and comfortable now, staying with his sister and mother.
Y is a mother of four minors. While her husband worked for five years in Russia, her father-in-law helped support the young family. However, since he passed away, Y had to look for a job herself. At that time, a neighbour’s relative was telling people about good working conditions and high salaries harvesting crop in Kazakhstan. With two other women, Y followed this seemingly attractive offer.
When they began work, however, they realized they had been deceived. Their passports were taken for ‘registration’ but not returned. The working conditions were terrible: they worked from 4 o’clock in the morning until 8 o’clock at night, receiving only thin soup and dry bread to eat and a basket of cold water to wash their face, and sleeping in an old hut on mats they had brought themselves. When they dared to ask for more, they were beaten. They did not receive any payment. After one week, Y called an NGO that supported victims of trafficking and forced labour. Her boss beat her to prevent her from talking, but one of her co-workers continued to telephone instead. The NGO could not interfere outside of Uzbekistan, but a cooperating NGO in Kazakhstan together with the Kazakhstan police helped retrieve their passports and brought them to the Uzbek border where the Uzbek NGO welcomed them and escorted them home.
Thereafter, members of the NGO taught Y and the other women how to avoid deceivers and become a victim in the future. They offer the rescued women individual advice and financial support, from professional training to starting their own business. Since Y had always liked making cookies, she chose to concentrate on this. Now, she smiles whenever she talks about her work. She runs her small business quite successfully.
Regarding the culprit, his relatives insistently begged the victims not to contact the police or an advocate, while the culprit moved to another village only to continue his dirty business there. At least ten other women are said to have become his further victims. Out of fear of exclusion from the community or revenge from their persecutor, the victims fear to talk about their experience. Their relatives would consider it a shame for the whole family and may blame rather than support the victims, accusing them of being greedy, stupid, or both.
Z (Representative of an NGO):
Besides mentioning cases like the two presented above, Z discusses terribly cruel cases of trafficking, including some resulting in the victims’ death.
According to her, in Soviet times, all people had work and enjoyed a comprehensive social security system, but after the collapse, this changed rapidly. Russian engineers left for Western countries, and industrial machines became old and were sold instead of being repaired. Except in Tashkent, there are no significant industries any longer, and Uzbek workers often travel to Russia. This leads to organized trafficking.
Families collect money to send a member abroad for work, but the traffickers demand more than the family can afford and propose that the difference be paid from the salary earned abroad. In fact, they always search for causes to keep the victims dependent and in their custody, and whenever a victim comes close to paying off the last instalment to regain her freedom, the traffickers sell her somewhere else, sometimes using drugs to make her submissive. Very rarely are the deceivers caught, because they usually accompany those they betray to traffickers abroad. Even well- educated women have been sold into forced labour, before the NGO began its awareness campaigns.
Since 2001, Z’s NGO has educated local people about legal conditions when going abroad, advising them to trust only official job agencies and to never surrender their passport. They might get a new passport issued in Kirghizia with a tourist visa to enter Russia, only to be sent further to Dubai, Israel, or Egypt where they would be forced to work as sex slaves for up to 50 ‘clients’ a day. Some of these pitiable victims commit suicide, while some others die from maltreatment. The ‘lucky’ ones among those resisting their torturers may be abandoned anywhere and told to find work themselves, but most often they are caught by the police for staying abroad without a valid visa and passport. The police may then either arrest the victim or hand her over to an NGO rescuing victims of trafficking.
In 2007, ahead of other Central Asian countries, the Uzbek parliament passed a law prohibiting human trafficking. Since then, the police’s attitude has changed from that of a secondary prosecutor to that of a supporter. Occasionally, they take victims to shelters established by the government, but the women may stay there only for ten days without any other place to go to thereafter. Besides, many victims fear the police. Nurses, who are supposed to support a victim, may let her relatives know of a blood test leading to the victim’s expulsion from her family.
The traffickers and their partners, on the other hand, have become more circumspect since the new law was passed and still tend to remain one step ahead of the police. They now sell men more often than before, forcing them into cruel hard work and intimidating them through torture.
To reduce trafficking in Uzbekistan, Z considers the establishment of official rules for work migration unavoidable; however, such rules would require the government to acknowledge the shortage of jobs inside the country instead of stigmatizing those leaving for work abroad as ‘idlers’. An agreement concerning work migration exists only with Korea, but even this cannot guarantee migrants’ safety. They are vulnerable, whether they leave or stay, as they are exposed to local trafficking and forced labour without contracts and insurance and to extremely low, irregular payment both within Uzbekistan and abroad. Even teachers do not receive salary regularly and frequently have to migrate because of continuous recurring costs, leading to rising debts and making it inevitable for them to change their workplace.
The search for reliable income divides families and forces individuals to undertake risky travels. The law of registration offers bosses a chance to establish dependence. Although acquaintances, companions, and public servants can all be helpful, they can also be dangerous. Although supportive on the surface, even local and familial communities prove to be unreliable. The same might apply to social workers employed in a government-organized NGO. Nonetheless, some social workers show a high degree of commitment in not only rescuing victims of trafficking but also supporting them to become independent. They also educate village folk about the risks and precautions of work migration, as well as assist the police in recognizing victims and raising their awareness of secondary damage. They courageously oppose political pressure with demands and intensified activism.
Although the new government has introduced changes, many Uzbekistanis still cannot help but become migrant workers, notwithstanding the risks involved. The response of social workers varies, from ignorance to rescue measures and active involvement in bringing about structural improvements. Despite political pressure and the risk of being arrested, maybe even tortured, their courageous response earns our support and admiration.
These social workers and victims deserve international support through pressure on companies and governments for fair trade, legally improved and controlled work conditions, and reliable migration laws. They need financial support for start-ups, investments to create jobs, and educational improvements, including vocational training. Almost everybody could be of help by spreading information and raising consumer awareness. Cooperation offers from foreign colleagues could help them as well.
Crane, Andrew (2013). Modern slavery as a management practice: Exploring the conditions and capabilities for human exploitation; in: Academy of Management Review, Vol. 38, No. 1, 45–69.
ILO (2016). Statistics on forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking. ilo.org
Ollus, Natalia (2015). Regulating forced labour and combating human trafficking: The relevance of historical definitions in a contemporary perspective; in: Crime, Law and Social Change, Vol. 63, No. 5, 221– 246.
Paz-Fuchs, Amir (2016). Badges of modern slavery; in: Modern Law Review, Vol. 79, No. 5, 757–785.