"Volunteering" Gone Mad in Uzbekistan

"Volunteering" Gone Mad in Uzbekistan

Teachers and other public-sectors professionals in Uzbekistan have always been forced to take part in notionally voluntary community tasks. But they say their unpaid labour has been called on increasingly since last autumn, as the authorities try to fill gaps in public services. 

The work they are required to do ranges from construction work and building repairs to landscaping of public spaces. Refusal to take part carries the risk of dismissal from their day jobs.

One doctor in the capital Tashkent said the health ministry assigned extra tasks to him and his colleagues on a weekly basis.

"Doctors are burdened with landscaping work as a way of recouping the state’s expenditure on healthcare,” he said.

In the western region of Samarkand, public-sector professionals are assigned to help builders. The men do plastering and roofing, while female staff members get to make meals for the construction workers and generally tidy up.

In Dangara, in the eastern Fergana region, schoolteachers have been assigned the unusual task of knocking on people’s doors to get them to pay their utility bills.

"They say that when teachers come and persuade people to pay their bills, the defaulters feel ashamed and start paying up,” the teacher said. “We are forced to do this extra work, but we don’t get paid for it."

In the neighbouring region of Syr Darya, teachers have been drafted in to build housing to cover up failings in a state-run rural development programme.

“A number of officials have already been dismissed and imprisoned because of the late implementation of this programme," the teacher explained.

The work is often presented as a form of “hashar” – a traditional Central Asian mutual aid system where neighbours would help one another take in the harvest or build a house. But it really dates to the Soviet period, when people were regularly summoned for collective work days known as “subbotniks”.

This arbitrary use of unpaid labour also survives in the well-documented use of schoolchildren and students to gather the annual cotton harvest in Uzbekistan.

Laylo Hamidova, a lawyer in Tashkent, says professionals assigned to blue-collar tasks have little choice but to go along with it.

"State-sector employees see that it is better to do the work than to refuse, and lose their modest salary,” she said.

Hamidova said that while such practices contravene Uzbekistan’s labour laws, no one has ever challenged this in court.

“People are reluctant to stand up for their rights in the courts because the authorities might view it as an assault on state policy," she explained.

For teachers, the latest form of extracurricular activity has taken a more sinister turn. They are being told to watch out for pupils going to internet clubs after school, and to visit them at home to warn of the “risks to state peace and stability” posed by the internet.

This article was produced as part of IWPR’s News Briefing CentralAsia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.

If you would like to comment or ask a question about this story, please contact our Central Asia editorial team at feedback.ca@iwpr.net.

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