Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law allows workers to form and join independent unions and bargain collectively. The government effectively enforced applicable laws. Despite their legal status, no independent labor unions operated in the country. The law neither provides for nor prohibits the right to strike, but it prohibits antiunion discrimination. The law on trade unions states that workers may not be fired due to trade union membership, but it does not clearly state whether workers fired for union activity must be reinstated. Volunteers in public works and workers employed by individuals without documented contracts do not have strong legal protections of their rights.
There was no public information available regarding government enforcement of applicable laws, since there were no known cases of attempts to form independent unions. The law provides penalties for violating freedom of association laws. Penalties were not commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights, such as discrimination. The government amended the law on “professional unions, rights, and guarantees of their activities.” Despite legal protections for profession unions, workers had not successfully formed or joined independent unions. Workers continued to worry that attempts to create independent alternative unions would be repressed. Unions remained centralized, controlled by, and dependent on the government.
The state-run Federation of Trade Unions of Uzbekistan included in its ranks more than 35,000 primary organizations and 14 regional trade unions, according to official reports. Regional and industrial trade unions remained state managed.
Government-organized unions did not undertake independent bargaining on behalf of their members. Government ministries, including the Ministry of Agriculture, in consultation with the Federation of Trade Unions, continued to set wages for government employees and production quotas in certain sectors. The government moved toward letting the market determine prices in a larger number of sectors than in previous years. In the emerging private sector, management established wages or negotiated them individually with persons who contracted for employment. Labor arbitration was underdeveloped.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, except as legal punishment for such offenses as robbery, fraud, or tax evasion or as specified by law. Certain sections of the criminal code allow for compulsory labor as a punishment for offenses including defamation and incitement of national, racial, ethnic, or religious enmity. The government effectively enforced the law, but penalties were not commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping.
Inspectors from the Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations (Ministry of Labor) have authority to enforce laws on forced labor. The lead for issues related to forced labor or trafficking in persons is the special rapporteur of the National Commission on trafficking in persons and forced labor. The International Labor Organization (ILO) increased the scope of its third-party monitoring on child and forced labor in the cotton harvest during the year.
Government-compelled forced labor of adults remained in other sectors as well. Despite a 2018 government prohibition, reports continued of local officials forcing teachers, students (including children), private businesses employees, and others to work in construction and other forms of noncotton agriculture and to clean parks, streets, and buildings. Officials occasionally compelled labor by labeling these tasks as hashar, voluntary work for the community’s benefit.
The government increased its efforts to combat all forms of forced labor. During the year the government informed the public of the prohibition against forced labor, including in the annual cotton harvest. Additionally, the government abolished state production quotas for the annual cotton harvest. Harvesters typically came from vulnerable groups such as impoverished families, unemployed persons, and single mothers.
The elimination of cotton production quotas was long called for by international organizations focused on the country’s forced labor issue. As a result, local officials are no longer held responsible for mobilizing sufficient labor to meet established production targets in the harvest, which in previous years had been a key driver of forced labor. The government continued to take steps towards privatizing the cotton sector by expanding so-called cotton “clusters.” Cotton clusters are private, vertically integrated enterprises (from farm to finished product) that receive land concessions from the government to either farm cotton directly or contract with cotton farmers in a given district.
The ILO found no evidence of “systemic or systematic” forced labor in the annual cotton harvest, while estimating 102,000 disparate cases of involuntary labor, a significant reduction from previous years.
Responsibility for overseeing government efforts to end forced labor and trafficking in persons resides with the National Commission on Trafficking in Persons and Forced Labor. The commission is divided into subcommittees for trafficking in persons, chaired by the minister of the interior, and for forced labor, chaired by the minister of employment and labor relations. Both act as deputy chairs to the commission itself. Tanzila Narbaeva, who also served as chair of the Senate, continued to fulfill the role of special rapporteur for the commission. The government-empowered special rapporteur reports directly to the president. Regional-level bodies report to the commission on implementation of laws and regulations related to forced labor and trafficking in persons.
On December 4, the National Commission on Trafficking in Persons and Forced Labor reported that 170 government officials were fined 654 million soum ($63,000) for violations of labor law, including five district governors (hokims), who were reprimanded for allowing forced labor to take place during the cotton harvest; the hokims were threatened with dismissal and could be subject to criminal prosecution for any repeat offenses. Of the 170 government officials, 42 officials–including business leaders, hokims, and their deputies–were prosecuted under Article 51 of the administrative code of responsibility (compulsion to labor.) The State Labor Inspectorate also identified 61 cases of failure to honor the labor contracts of more than 540 citizens, 34 cases of poor working conditions, and 17 cases of late payment of wages. Since the beginning of the cotton harvest season, the Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations received 790 complaints of forced labor. Civil society activists submitted 26 complaints, including six identifying forced labor that resulted in fines imposed on officials.
The government maintained formal prohibitions on the use of forced labor in all economic sectors and worked to enforce these provisions. Administrative penalties against the use of forced labor include a fine for first offense. Secondary offenses are criminalized.
The government allowed the ILO access in real time to its feedback mechanism for reporting labor violations to see how it responded to complaints. The government additionally made efforts to meet with international organizations, NGOs, civil society organizations, and local activists to discuss the issue of forced labor publicly and to receive feedback, including suggestions and criticism to enable it to improve its approach to forced labor in the cotton harvest. The government acknowledged its problem with forced labor and sought assistance to eliminate it.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. The law sets the minimum working age at 16 and provides that work must not interfere with the studies of those younger than 18. The law does not allow children younger than 15 to work, but this provision was not always observed. Children age 15, with permission from their parents, may work a maximum of 24 hours per week when school is not in session and 12 hours per week when school is in session. Children ages 16 through 18 may work 36 hours per week while school is out of session and 18 hours per week while school is in session. Decrees stipulate a list of hazardous activities forbidden for children younger than 18 and prohibit employers from using children to work under specified hazardous conditions, including underground, underwater, at dangerous heights, and in the manual harvesting of cotton, including cotton harvesting with dangerous equipment.
Children were employed in small-scale family agriculture; in family businesses, such as bakeries and convenience stores; and in the provision of some kinds of services.
Inspectors from the Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations have authority to enforce laws on child labor, and they effectively enforced the law. Penalties were not commensurate with those for analogous crimes, such as kidnapping. Reports indicated that child labor was not widespread, although cotton harvest monitors identified isolated instances of child labor violations in the production and harvest of cotton as well as commercial sexual exploitation.
There was no evidence of any government-compelled child labor. The government prohibition against the use of students in the cotton harvest remains in force.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
Laws and regulations prohibit discrimination with respect to employment and occupation based on race, gender, religion, and language. The labor code states that differences in the treatment of individuals deserving of the state’s protection or requiring special accommodation, including women, children, and persons with disabilities, are not to be considered discriminatory. The law prohibits women from working in 355 professions in 98 different industries, because of possible adverse effect to women’s health. The law does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, age, political opinion, national origin or citizenship, or social origin. HIV-positive individuals are legally prohibited from being employed in certain occupations, including those in the medical field that require direct contact with patients or with blood or blood products as well as in cosmetology or haircutting. There was insufficient publicly available data to determine government enforcement of these laws and regulations and no data on instances of government actions to deal with cases of illegal discrimination. Penalties were commensurate to laws related to civil rights, such as election interference.
The labor code prohibits refusing employment based on an applicant’s criminal record or the criminal record of a close relative.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The law provides for a national minimum wage. In January, President Mirziyoyev publicly acknowledged that between 12 and 15 percent of the population (between four and five million persons) lived at or below the poverty level. The law establishes a standard workweek of 40 hours and requires a 24-hour rest period. The law provides for paid annual holidays. The law provides overtime compensation as specified in employment contracts or as agreed with an employee’s trade union. Such compensation may be provided in the form of additional pay or leave. The law states that overtime compensation should not be less than 200 percent of the employee’s average monthly salary rate. Additional leave time should not be less than the length of actual overtime work. An employee may not work more than 120 hours of overtime per year, but this limitation was not generally observed, particularly in the public sector. The law prohibits compulsory overtime. The government effectively enforced these laws in the formal economy. Penalties for violations of wage and overtime laws were not commensurate with those for similar crimes, such as fraud. No data was available on enforcement of these laws in the informal economy. In an open letter to the authorities posted on Telegram in July, medical workers said that compensation promised by President Mirziyoyev had not been delivered and that salaries were often delayed. The letter also said that testing for COVID-19 among medical workers was uneven, raising the risk that they could spread the virus.
The Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations establishes and enforces occupational health and safety standards in consultation with unions. According to the law, health and safety standards should be applied in all sectors. The government effectively enforced these laws in the formal economy. No data was available on enforcement of these laws in the informal economy. Penalties for violations of occupational health and safety laws were not commensurate with those for crimes, such as negligence.
Employers are responsible for ensuring compliance with standards, rules, and regulations on labor protection as well as obligations under collective agreements.
On October 20, thousands of workers rioted at an industrial facility under construction. The riots started after the employer, Enter Engineering Pte. Ltd., failed to provide employees with food that evening, which added to the workers’ frustration over unpaid salaries. The law provides that workers may legally remove themselves from hazardous work if an employer fails to provide adequate safety measures for the job, and the employer must pay the employee during the time of the work stoppage or provide severance pay if the employee chooses to terminate employment. Workers generally did not exercise this right because it was not effectively supported and employees feared retribution by employers. The law requires employers to protect against civil liability for damage caused to the life or health of an employee in connection with a work injury, occupational disease, or other injury to health caused by the employee’s performance on the job. In addition, a company’s employees have the right to demand, and the administration is obliged to provide them with, information on the state of working conditions and safety at work, available personal protection means, benefits, and compensations.
The number of labor inspectors increased throughout the year, and there was a rise in the number of public complaints received as well as penalties issued.
The Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations maintains protocols requiring investigation into labor complaints within five business days. The ministry or a local governor’s office could initiate a selective inspection of a business, and special inspections were conducted in response to accidents or complaints. Inspectors do have the authority to make unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions. Reports suggested that enforcement was uneven because of the difficulty and size of the informal economy, where employment was usually undocumented. Despite an increase in the number of labor inspectors, the Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations lacked adequate staff to enforce compliance and prevent many violations in the informal sector.
The government continued with the extension of the ILO’s Decent Work Country Program. The most common labor violations were working without contracts, receiving lower than publicly announced payments, delayed payments, and substandard sanitary or hygienic working conditions.
Many employees had official part-time or low-income jobs and many continued to work informally. The government worked to shift more of the economy from informal to the formal economy and to provide labor and social protections to those working informally.
The most common violations committed by private sector employers were violations of wage, overtime, and occupational health and safety standards. Although regulations provide standards for workplace safety, workers reportedly worked without necessary protective clothing and equipment at some hazardous job sites. More specific information was not available on sectors in which occupational safety violations were common, as well as on specific groups of workers who worked in dangerous conditions or without needed safety equipment. In July media reported doctors, nurses, and workers at quarantine centers were being forced to sign waiver letters promising not to make claims against the government if they contracted COVID-19. In March the country joined the Commonwealth of Independent States’ Interstate Council for Industrial Safety to improve its industry safety standards. The government did not provide statistics on industrial accidents.