Tajikistan: Farm “Slavery” Exposed

New research reveals mass exploitation and enslavement of women farm workers.

Tajikistan: Farm “Slavery” Exposed

New research reveals mass exploitation and enslavement of women farm workers.

Sayora Amirova cannot remember when she was last paid a decent wage. But with four children to support and a husband in Russia, she dare not question her boss - even when her payment for backbreaking agricultural labour sometimes takes the form of empty jars.

“The bosses say there is a crisis in the country and we should be happy with what we have,” said Amirova. "They pay us differently, it varies from one to ten somoni a year [around 3.40 US dollars], sometimes more. Instead of money, we are often given soap, food or empty jars.”

Amirova started working in the cotton fields of Khatlon oblast in southern Tajikistan five years ago, after her husband left to find work in Russia.

She knows nothing of her constitutional right to a minimum wage or a vacation. And according to a new survey - conducted by Tajik non-governmental organisations, Zan va Zamin (Women and the land) and Sitora (Star) - she is typical of the women who make up 95 per cent of the workforce on Tajikistan’s farms.

The results, which were made public at a conference on women and collective farming held in Dushanbe last month, show that women workers are widely exploited - if not effectively enslaved - by their male managers.

Their salary is usually unregulated and rarely adequate, they have no written contract and receive no benefits. Although the minimum wage in Tajikistan is five somoni per year, 17 per cent of the women surveyed said they received an annual salary that was less than this.

A further 22 per cent said they were not paid in money at all – instead they were sent home with food, soap or, on occasion, empty glass jars.

The new research also reveals that most women in the country’s vast collective farms are sent to work in the fields, while men tend to become managers or mechanics.

And while most women have never seen the men who own the farms they work on, they hold them in the same regard as feudal lords or monarchs.

Tajikistan is an overwhelmingly agrarian country, with over 80 per cent of the population of 6.4 million living in villages. According to the United Nations Development Fund for Women, 16,000 collective farms were created in the country between 1996 and 2001.

The survey was conducted amongst 500 women taken from collective farms in eight cotton-growing regions of the Khatlon oblast.

Sociologist Makhmadlatif Khadyzoda, one of the authors of the survey, says he has come across many instances where labour rights have been brazenly ignored, “Despite the fact that now the minimum wage in Tajikistan is five somoni, there are cases when a woman received two somoni for a year’s work, and another who only received one piece of laundry soap over a similar period.”

“There is another example of a woman and her family who gathered six tons of cotton, and were only paid 60 somoni,” Khadyzoda continued, adding that according to wage rates set by the government, she should have received ten times as much.

According to the research by Khadyzoda and his colleagues, only 15 per cent of the women had heard of the Tajik constitution and less than one per cent knew of the right to a minimum wage and a vacation granted them by its family and labour code.

Asked where they would look for protection, 60 per cent of respondents said the farm owner, only three per cent said trade unions or law-enforcement bodies and 30 per cent said no one could protect them. The new survey also revealed that although all workers have a trade union fee subtracted from their earnings, most are not aware of this.

According to Saodat Muminova, head of the non-governmental organisation Sitora, farm owners can easily deceive and sideline the women who don’t know their rights. “Most women do not know that their farms became joint-stock companies, dekhkan or collective farms, some time ago and that they are shareholders in them, and therefore also have the right to take part in decision-making,” she said.

Muminova said she was shocked by cases where farm bosses had tricked or forced women into surrendering plots of land that had been allocated to them by presidential decree. Other common abuses included reducing the salary of women workers and denying them pregnancy benefits.

Eighty-two per cent of the women said they were not aware of the right to take time off work because they were ill or incapacitated, while 79 per cent had never taken a vacation.

Komiljon Kholov, head of the central committee of Tajikistan’s agrarian and industrial trade union, acknowledged that basic rights were often ignored, but put the blame on the women workers for not coming forward to complain.

“These violations do indeed take place. Unfortunately, the women themselves don’t appeal to us on these issues,” said Kholov. “But nevertheless, we are working on the problem.”

He pointed out that the committee expected farm owners to provide a report on the welfare of each of their workers every year, while union representatives at each farm were present to ensure rights were respected. Kholov said that rogue bosses, rather than the collective farm system, were responsible for the exploitation of workers.

Official figures released recently suggest that these managers may be guilty of more than just underpaying their workers – they have also run up debts of 170 million dollars to investors. Experts put this figure down to a combination of greed and incompetence.

The government has assured the investors in the farms that their money will be returned. It has yet to assure the women who work on them that they will receive any compensation for years of underpayment and exploitation.

Nargis Zokirova is a journalist with Vecherny Dushanbe in Tajikistan.

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