Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Unhappy Job Swaps for Turkmen Teachers

When street cleaners are redeployed to work on farms, schoolteachers are forced take their place.
By IWPR staff
Like a swarm of ants, scores of people rummage around the pile of demolished buildings, clearing away bricks and other bits and pieces of masonry. With no gloves to protect their hands and glum expressions on their faces, these workers appeared to be labouring under sufferance.



This is hardly surprising, as these workers are in fact teachers who have been corralled into the clearance operation by the city authorities in the eastern city of Turkmenabat, formerly Charjou, who have no labourers to do the job.



In a move that reflects a wider policy of forcing public sector employees to work in areas other than their own, the cash-strapped city administration has given the teachers no choice in the matter. If they refuse to do general labouring and cleaning tasks for the municipality, they will lose their jobs.



President Saparmurat Niazov effectively gave the green light for this form of exploitation last year, when he began using soldiers to cover for hospital staff sacked in a massive cost-cutting exercise.



Although Turkmenistan is a major exporter of gas, the revenues do not appear to reach the central government budget, which frequent cuts in jobs and benefits suggest is strapped for cash.



In Turkmenabat, while white-collar state employees such as teachers and doctors are being dragooned into clearing streets and collecting rubbish after work and at weekends, the municipal cleaners who should be really doing the job are dispatched, along with many factory workers, to the cotton fields. They spend up to three weeks at a time there weeding and thinning out young crops in preparation for the harvest.



The exercise is strongly reminiscent of Soviet “subbotniks”, when people had to turn out for voluntary work at the weekend. In post-Soviet Turkmenistan, though, the exercise has something of the absurd about it, as everyone seems to be doing someone else’s job.



“We are forced to work everywhere that the municipal workers should be working. We teachers sweep and clean the streets, pick up rubbish on lawns, and trim trees and bushes,” said history teacher Raisa Maximova. “We are forced to work both weekdays and weekends. But we too have families, children. When can we give them any attention if we work with virtually no days off?”



Her colleague, mathematics teacher Batyr Yazyev, spoke of the difficulties of combining two jobs. “Every day for two or three hours after teaching lessons, we work in these ruins. Is this part of our professional duties?” he asked. “The end of the school year is the most intense time at school. There are school reports, exam preparations, and repairs to classrooms.”



A senior official in the local education department admitted that the authorities were putting teachers under unbearable pressure.



“Teachers [already] have an incredible burden: preparing for lessons, marking work, and meeting parents,” he said. “We must take teachers’ time into account. After all, they are laying the foundation for the most important thing of all – the future generation of the country, as bombastic as that may sound.”



Teachers are bitter and frustrated at having to pay for the inefficiency of bureaucrats. “The city authorities solve their economic problems at the teachers’ expense, thus violating their labour and constitutional rights,” said a representative of the teachers’ union.



While the teachers feel aggrieved, they can at least consider themselves fortunate not to be shipped off to toil in the cotton fields, as many other urban workers are.



“We’re sent out to the fields by force, dozens of kilometres from the city,” said Batyr Arslanov, whose real job is at a textiles plant. “The management ignores our family circumstances. The order comes to the workshops and we are divided into shifts and sent off for ten or 15 days at a time.”



To add insult to injury, the “volunteers” have to fork out the cost of both getting to the fields and food provisions for the duration of their time there.



Some find creative solutions such as the staff at one Turkmenabat plant, who pay villagers to do their work for them.



Others end up being forced into resigning, like Lachin Mamedova, who left her job at a silk factory.



“I have three children, my husband works, and I cannot leave my family and children for two or three weeks and travel a long way from home,” she said. “The management gave me a choice – either go to the fields or write a letter of resignation. I chose the latter. Another four employees at our factory did the same.”



(The names of people speaking in this article have been changed for safety reasons.)