Uzbek Fury Over Unpaid Salaries

Workers are going hungry as confusion grows over who is responsible for the continued non-payment of their wages.

Uzbek Fury Over Unpaid Salaries

Workers are going hungry as confusion grows over who is responsible for the continued non-payment of their wages.

Uzbekistan is facing growing industrial tension as the country's workers and pensioners go for months without pay and benefits.

Public anger at the delay in payments has been made more acute by the government's vast expenditure on Independence Day celebrations.

Workers are going hungry while their employers blame the banks for not providing them enough cash to pay salaries. The latter in turn claim they don't have enough money to go round.

Staff at one of the country's biggest enterprises, the Chkalov Aviation-Industrial Union in Tashkent, have not been paid since June. The company's pensioners last received a cheque in March.

"President Islam Karimov increased state pensions in April - and that's exactly when we stopped receiving them. Now I live like a beggar, selling whatever belongings I have left in order to buy bread," former Chkalov specialist worker Olga Nazarenko told IWPR.

The situation may be difficult in the capital, but some areas of the country are even worse off. Workers at cotton-refining factories, state farms and construction trusts in the Jizak region have not been paid for a number of months.

Bakhtiyor Tokbaev and 12 of his colleagues recently won a court case against their employer - Automotive Enterprise No. 21 in the Jizak town of Gagarin - for not paying salaries for more than a year.

The courts ordered the firm to pay 23,196,000 sums (more than 20,000 US dollars) to its employees in August. However, the local prosecutor found that the enterprise was totally insolvent and owed its suppliers huge amounts of money.

"The management of the enterprise is not hurrying to pay its staff, and new debts are emerging all the time," Assistant Prosecutor Komiljon Isoqov told IWPR.

Workers at the Zarbdar cotton-refining factory in Jizak, who have only received two monthly salary payments this year, are now threatening to go on strike.

"Dissatisfaction grows among the workers and I am already afraid to look in their eyes," said factory director Raim Kasymov.

"My cashier goes to the bank every day hoping to receive at least half of the sum that should be paid to the workers. But the bank says that they do not have the money - and do not expect to have it any time soon."

Yuldash Safarov, a senior official at the central bank's Jizak branch, said the problem was created because the cash it paid out in salaries was not being banked there, as most of the local population spent their wages in the capital and its neighbouring Samarkand region.

Commercial bank managers say the problem is the result of monthly limits on cash payments imposed on them by the central bank. Uzbekistan is in the process of implementing a series of reforms to strengthen its banking system and liberalise foreign trade under the supervision of the International Monetary Fund.

In a July memorandum, the central bank admitted that there was a serious problem with the non-payment of salaries. Its deputy chairman, Muhammadjon Jumagaliev, told IWPR that all debts related to payment of salaries have been paid off throughout the republic as of this month.

"In July we did have problems, but we created an emergency task force which monitored the situation in all of the regions, dealt with the problems and organised payment," he said.

However, reports from Jizak suggest otherwise. "As of September 1, the debt of only one enterprise, the Kaitashskii mine, equals 33,600,000 thousand sums," said Yuldash Safarov, head of the salaries department at the central bank's Jizak branch.

Local human rights activists complain that government statements are only making matter worse. "Right now, resolutions about timely payment of salaries and pensions are so pathetic that they only annoy people," said Bakhtiyar Khamraev, chairman of the Jizak branch of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, HRSU.

Some suspect that the cash shortages stems from the government's vast expenditure on Independence Day celebrations.

Khamraev alleged that the Khokim - head of the regional administration - had ordered around 2,000 dollars to be taken from the accounts of local enterprises to pay for Uzbek pop stars to perform at September 1 event, which cost around 500 million sum - around 440,000 dollars - in total.

Such reports have angered the unpaid workers, who feel they have very little to celebrate. "It would have been better if they paid us our salaries," said Khamraev, one of the out-of-pocket employees at Gagarin's Automotive Enterprise No. 21.

"I can't even afford a kilo of meat for my children for the holiday, not to mention clothes and various school items needed for the coming year."

Ulugbek Khaidarov is an independent journalist from Jizak

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