Rural Job Scheme Hits Uzbek Farmers' Pockets

Farmers complain they are being forced to subsidise a government work-creation scheme.

Rural Job Scheme Hits Uzbek Farmers' Pockets

Farmers complain they are being forced to subsidise a government work-creation scheme.

An Uzbek government initiative to create rural jobs for the growing number of unemployed has angered farmers, who feel they are being made to underwrite this social project at a financial loss to themselves.

Farmers in Uzbekistan are notionally private operators but remain beholden to the state, as they hold land on a long lease rather than in outright ownership, and continue to be set Soviet-style quotas for cotton and wheat, which they have to sell to monopoly trading enterprises at below-market prices.

They are alarmed at instructions issued by district administrations around the country telling them to take on extra workers. Farmers say the district-level officials in turn received verbal orders to implement the job-creation scheme from the central government in Tashkent.

News of the campaign was first reported in late April by the Rapid Response Group, an independent group in Uzbekistan.

Analysts with the group are certain the government’s actions are prompted by a desire to soak up the extra labour force created by the return of migrant workers from Russia and Kazakstan, where job markets are contracting as a result of the severe economic downturn.

According to some estimates, as many as five million of Uzbekistan’s 27 million people are working abroad, although there are no reliable statistics on this, or on the rate at which they are returning.

“We think this measure is an attempt by the government to tackle mass unemployment, which may be exacerbated when the majority of Uzbek labour migrants start coming back to rural areas,” said the Rapid Response Group report.

Saibjon Aliev of Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, quoted by the Eurasianet website, said earlier this month that some 930,000 new jobs would be generated in 2009, of which over 550,000 would be in the countryside. In remarks originally carried by Russia’s Regnum news agency, he said nearly 210,000 jobs, some 150,000 of them rural, were created in January-March this year.

IWPR enquiries confirm that farmers are being asked to hire one unemployed person for every two hectares they lease, and pay them a wage of 40,000 soms a month, about 28 US dollars.

“I have 100 hectares of land. That means I should be taking on 50 people, and paying them wages,” said one farmer in the western region of Bukhara. “Where am I to get the money?”

A leaseholder in another district of Bukhara region added, “Things will go badly for farmers if this verbal instruction is taken seriously. Bad weather has forced many of us to sow cotton three times over, so that we are losing two million soms [1,300 dollars] per hectare in expenditure. How can we pay wages to new workers when we are in the red ourselves?”

An agricultural reform pushed through late last year required smaller farms to merge into large units. With one owner replacing several, many small-scale farmers were left without jobs, adding to the problem of rural unemployment.

There is no question that farm need workers. Cotton is a particularly labour-intensive crop, especially since the specialised machinery of the Soviet period has been largely replaced by manual work for planting, weeding, and picking.

Farmers try to minimise costs by using family members or hiring temporary workers who get a fraction of the officially-set wage.

As one farmer in Bukhara said, “We try to get by with the help of family members. We can’t afford to pay the wages imposed by local government.”

Apart from providing unemployment with jobs farmers are also ordered to finance renovation of public housing.

As well as taking on extra labour, the authorities are reportedly instructing farmers to contribute funds to renovate their villages and repair the roads.

A farmer in the Jizzak region of central Uzbekistan said he and his colleagues were told to fund the renovation of 20 housing blocks. The cost of cement, plaster, paint and labour is worked out and the farmers are required to foot the bill.

“It turns out that on average each farmer has to fork out 100,000 soms [68 dollars] of his own money,” said this man. “If anyone objects to this, he will be subjected to [state inspections] and may have to part with [fines worth] 500,000 soms.”

In Bukhara, there are reports that the system is already being rigged in much the same way as described in the famous Russian novel “Dead Souls”. Lists of successfully-employed farmworkers are compiled, while in reality no one is being hired.

“That works for the authorities, as they can report that the instruction is being carried out, even though the farmer is not taking people on,” said one local observer.

Elsewhere, farmers may not be able to get away with it. They say they are vulnerable to pressure from local authorities because they are already forced to break so many rules.

One man in the central Syr Darya region said that he is technically allowed to use 6.5 hectares of his total 125 hectares of land to grow vegetables, which he can eat or sell for cash. The other 95 per cent of the land has to be used for “quota” crops, in his case mostly wheat. But because he sets aside another 3.5 hectares to give his hired workers a small plot each, and for other purposes, he is technically in breach of the rules.

“That’s it – the farmer is a criminal,” he said. “He can be simply taken down to the police station, the judge will read out the verdict with a clear conscience, and the farmer is sent off to a [labour camp] as he is a criminal in the eyes of the law.”

He added, “Our hokims [local government chiefs] are great, they are smart. These are just some of their methods. Every step of the way, they are making money for the motherland. And they get all of it from the farmers’ pockets. Has our state really become so poor?”

(The names of interviewees have been withheld out of concern for their security.)

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