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Uzbekistan: Clinton Visits GM Plant; Activists Say Workers Forced to Pick Cotton

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toured the General Motors plant in Tashkent while visiting Uzbekistan this past weekend, plugging Washington's promise of prosperity for the region as a new "Silk Road" emerges alongside the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) supplying US and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

"GM’s presence here in Uzbekistan adds to our efforts to build closer economic connections between ourselves and the countries of South and Central Asia," Clinton said yesterday in a speech from the shop floor.

The plant is a joint venture by GM, Daewoo and the Uzbek state company UzAvtosanaot (GM owns 25 percent, the Uzbeks 75 percent) and employs about 6,600 people and produces about 250,000 vehicles a year. Clinton enthused about the operation as a "symbol of friendship and cooperation," even offering US support for $20,000 prizes for eight Uzbek entrepreneurs:

We place a priority on shared ventures like this plant. It was designed by Uzbek and American engineers and architects working together. It was built to be environmentally responsible for the local community. In fact, GM’s water purification technology will ensure the water is cleaner when it leaves the factory than when it entered.

GM’s global manufacturing processes will be carried out by skilled Uzbek workers using locally sourced components, ultimately adding over 1,000 new jobs for Uzbeks. And the use of American machinery and technology as well as the revenues created from the annual production of more than 225,000 new power-trained engines will also support jobs in the United States for Americans.

While the plant may be "environmentally responsible," concerns about conditions for workers have nevertheless emerged.

During this year’s harvest, human rights groups received reports from local monitors that GM employees in Uzbekistan were reportedly forced to leave their regular jobs and travel to fields to pick cotton under orders from local government, as part of Uzbekistan's widely-documented centrally-organized forced labor program.

According to an article in the independent Uzbek news site fergananews.com, workers in both public and private companies are forced to pick cotton each year, and GM was among them:

Of course, as in previous years, the workers and employees of large industrial enterprises are sent to pick cotton, including such enterprises that pay high taxes to Uzbekistan's state treasury, and sell to the state, at a reduced rate, half of their foreign currency earnings from exports. Their situation is actually much easier than those going to pick cotton from state agencies, universities, and schools. As a rule, for the employees of the large industrial enterprises, they organize more or less tolerable work conditions. They continue to get paid their usual wages for the time they are out picking cotton. Companies are not compensated for the cost of sending personnel and maintaining them, and one may also note that because of this they are actually taxed an informal transport “cotton tax.”

The report from fergananews.com was independently confirmed by the Uzbek German Forum for Human Rights, which told EurasiaNet that a source in Asaka reported that workers at the auto plant have also been mobilized to pick cotton, as they have been every year.

The way the system works: employees of some factory workshops are formally sent on vacation, and that enables the authorities to send them to the cotton fields. It is not clear whether the workers are paid for these "vacations," says the Uzbek German Forum.

GM operates two plants in Uzbekistan, one in Tashkent and the other in Asaka. In January 2009, GM established a second joint venture called GM Powertrain-Uzbekistan with 52 percent ownership and is building a new engine plant in Tashkent expected to be completed next month which will produce 225,000 engines and create about 1,200 new jobs, according the Uzbek government.

Labor rights groups are still trying to get more information about the status of workers at the GM plant. Uzbekistan has refused to permit the International Labor Organization (ILO) to enter the country and inspect conditions in the cotton fields.

Uzbekistan: Clinton Visits GM Plant; Activists Say Workers Forced to Pick Cotton

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