Uzbekistan’s government has an ambitious plan to transform more than 450 villages across the Central Asian country this year, reconstructing roads, homes, schools, hospitals, and other infrastructure.
But the badly needed upgrades, part of the Prosperous Village project, are overshadowed by claims that many people are being forced to work without pay at the construction sites or to donate money.
The brainchild of President Shavkat Mirziyoev, the multimillion-dollar project was launched in 2018 in an attempt to raise living standards in Uzbek villages, home to half of Uzbekistan’s estimated 32 million people.
In the town of Josh, in Samarkand Province, thousands of local residents, including women, were recruited to works on projects “against their will,” several sources told RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service in June.
“In all, more than 5,000 people were brought to work,” one Josh resident told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity. “Those who don’t have anyone to take care of their children came to work with their kids.”
The townsman said the authorities mostly recruited public-sector workers and families who receive social-security benefits or pensions — people dependent on the state for their well-being.
“Those who refuse to show up are threatened with being fired from their jobs,” the Josh resident said. “Those who receive pensions, child support, or income benefits are being warned that if they don’t come to work their benefits will end.”
Several sources sent RFE/RL photos they say depict Josh residents who had been rounded up for compulsory work.
One shows dozens of normally dressed men and women next to a group in construction-worker uniforms and hardhats. Many are holding shovels and other tools. At least one small child and an elderly man are in two of the photos.
A video sent to RFE/RL shows a group of men working at a building site with a few men standing on a pile of bricks and tossing them to others on the rooftop of a half-built, one-story building.
The men catch the bricks in a slow, rather dangerous process before laying them on the roof.
None of the men are wearing a worker’s uniform with helmets and gloves, raising serious safety questions for the workers and those around them in what appears to be a busy square.
Another photo depicts five men — all of whom are in standard, nonwork clothes — digging a trench.
Rahmatillo Togaev, a neighborhood committee head in Josh, referred to the works as a “hashar,” a Central Asian tradition of voluntary work in which people gather to clean the streets or help a neighbor with some manual labor in a day of cooperative work.
Some say that officials’ use of the term “hashar” is abusing it and simply a way to make people feel obligated to do the work.
Togaev dismissed the allegations of forced labor and threats to people’s benefits as “lies.”
“Everybody comes to work voluntarily. They are happy to be working,” he told RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service on June 17. “It’s all about their own neighborhoods, their own [town or] village becoming prosperous. Nobody forced them [to work]. Nobody threatened to stop their social benefits [or regular wages].”
Authorities in Josh, which has some 26,000 inhabitants, have until the end of the year to refurbish some 200 kilometers of roads, build two new bridges, and a hospital as part of the president’s Prosperous Village scheme.
The project also includes building small stadiums in each of Josh’s eight neighborhoods, renovating the village’s school and mosque, and construct 20 so-called affordable houses for the poor.
Josh is one of 478 towns and villages chosen by the authorities to be renovated this year. It’s unclear what the consequences will be for communities that do not finish the public works on time.
In 2018, the first year of the nationwide project in which hundreds of thousands of people are reported to have taken part, 417 municipalities in Uzbekistan were refurbished in some way.
The first year saw a major overhaul of roads and public and private buildings, as well as construction of supply networks for drinking water, gas, and electricity for rural areas.
There were, however, claims of compulsory financial contributions in some places, RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service was told by many people.
In May 2018, just a month after the massive Prosperous Village plan was launched, several teachers in the eastern Namangan Province complained they were ordered to donate money to the project.
“We were told to sign away one day’s salary to the Prosperous Village project,” a female teacher in Namangan’s Turakurgon district told RFE/RL.
“Teachers who didn’t want to pay were told their work hours will be reduced [thus resulting in lesser wages] or they would be fired. Basically, we’re being forced to pay, we don’t have any choice,” the teacher said.
RFE/RL asked district education official Abdurasul Boymatov about the teachers’ allegations. He said all donations were made “solely on a voluntary basis.”
In the absence of transparency by the state and with no free media in Uzbekistan, it’s hard to know precisely how widespread the forced labor and donations are throughout the country.
Uzbekistan has been widely criticized for many years for its conscription of people to harvest cotton, a major Uzbek export.
According to the International Labor Organization, approximately 170,000 people were forced to pick cotton in Uzbekistan in 2018.
But Tashkent has — at least officially — ended the practice of using child labor in the cotton industry amid the sharp criticism and international boycotts of Uzbek cotton.
Reports from Uzbekistan suggest that public-sector workers are sometimes enlisted for “voluntary” work such as sweeping the streets and cleaning up garbage either on weekends or instead of coming to the office.
Mandatory donations are not uncommon in Uzbekistan, where teachers and parents are often instructed to pay for school renovations or compulsory subscriptions to state-owned newspapers.
Mekhribon Bekieva and Khurmat Babajan of RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service contributed to this report