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“I realized forced labour was a huge social, economic and political issue”

July 12, 2022

Sharifa Madraimova is an Uzbek journalist and human rights activist. In 2011, she, like many fellow citizens, was requested to help with the cotton harvest. She refused and instead started writing about her experience. She tells us how the situation of Uzbek journalists has evolved in the recent years: forced labour is no longer a taboo for media and journalists can now freely report on forced labour.

Photo @ t_y_l
©lisakristine.com

How did you start writing about forced labour?

I used to live in Tashkent, the capital city of Uzbekistan and, for family reasons, I returned in 2011 to the village where I was born and grew up: Katagan, located in the Uchkuprik district of Ferghana valley.

That same year, since I could not find work in journalism, I took a job in a school. At the beginning of the cotton harvest, all teachers were forced to go and pick cotton and threatened with dismissal if they refused. As a person who knows her rights, I refused to go to the cotton fields but I had to assume the responsibility of caring for schoolchildren of several classes simultaneously.

After this experience, I wrote an article about it, but no one accepted to publish it. At the time, there was a lot of pressure on journalists. I eventually managed to publish it on a foreign website, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, under a pseudonym.

You have been covering forced labour issues in Uzbekistan for a decade, can you tell us about your experience as a journalist reporting on this topic?

Following the publication of this first article, several news outlets such as BBC Uzbek, Ozodlik Uzbek Services, and Eltuz, asked me if I could prepare reports on similar cases. This is how I became interested in the topics of labour rights, labour legislation, and decent working conditions. I realized that these topics were a huge social, economic, and even political issue.

From 2011 to 2018, I continued working the same way. Uzbek media would publish articles that the government liked about labour law and labour rights, such as “100 jobs are created in Uchkuprik district” or “a concert is given to workers and employees”. However, there were no reports in the Uzbek media of topics such as “workers’ rights are being violated by some enterprises”, “workers are not being paid on time”, or “workers at factories are being given oil, flour or soap instead of wages”.

Has the situation evolved?

After the death of the President in 2016, the new President, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, paved the way for freedom of speech and opinion. It was only in 2017 that journalists and bloggers began to feel they could speak without any pressure. In 2018, the Turon24 news agency was established in Tashkent. I was selected as a special correspondent for the Fergana region and I published a series of news and articles on forced labour. The same year, I was named “journalist who has written the most about forced labour” in a national competition organized jointly by the International Labour Organization and the National Centre for Development Strategy.

 What is the main challenge that Uzbek journalists face when reporting on forced labour?

 Our main challenge is that people do not consider themselves as victims of forced labour. When interviewed, they say: “I clean the street voluntarily”, “I voluntarily went to pick cotton”, “I voluntarily participate in this event”. After you cut off the microphone, turn off camera and recorder, they say that their boss would force them to write a letter of resignation if they do not participate in this cotton harvest. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have taken part in such events, but my boss doesn’t like people who do not do what he says” they say.

The ILO adapted its toolkit on forced labour and fair recruitment to the Uzbekistan context. You have recently participated in an ILO training on reporting on forced labour, building on this toolkit. How did you benefit from this experience?

The virtual training was organized from 4 to 7 October 2021. 19 journalists participated from different regions of Uzbekistan. This training was very useful and interesting. It helped me better acquaint myself with labour related terms. There is also a saying among our people, “Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave,” meaning “live a century, study a century.” I think it is necessary to hold such seminars more often. Because no matter how much we consider ourselves professional journalists, we have a lot to learn from other colleagues, especially foreign journalists and experts. For example, during the training, a story about trafficked Tunisian girls inspired me. I also became convinced that I could write in my own country on these topics. The training has been of great benefit to me, and several topics ended up in my ideas box. As a result of the training, I published three articles on forced labour on Rost24 and labourcentralasia.org, as well as on my Facebook page.

 


Interview by Charles Autheman.

 The ILO has cooperated with the Government and social partners of Uzbekistan on child and forced labour since 2013.  In 2015, it began monitoring the cotton harvest for forced labour and child labour as part of an agreement with the World Bank. Thanks to this cooperation, major progress was achieved in the eradication of child labour and forced labour in the cotton harvest. Cotton pickers’ wages increased significantly. The ILO Third Party Monitoring (TPM) reported that the Uzbek government managed to eradicate the systemic use of child labour and forced labour (students, teachers, doctors, nurses, etc.) during the 2020 cotton harvest. Mechanisms are now in place to report and lodge complaints for individual cases.

In order to enable journalists to freely cover forced labour issues, the ILO organized some activities, by training local journalists, organizing press conferences, and media awards in cooperation with the Development Strategy Centre of Uzbekistan. 250 journalists were trained in 2018. See Media training for Uzbek journalists.