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Kazakh Slavery Case Underscores Wider Problem

For four people in southern Kazakhstan, the hope of eking out a meager existence led to a nightmare of human bondage. The story of their descent into slavery underscores a growing problem in a region where extreme economic inequality provides fertile ground for an age-old form of exploitation.

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported on 16 July that two residents of the Baidibek District in southern Kazakhstan face charges of kidnapping, physical abuse, and employing slave labor. The Khalitov brothers dangled the prospect of employment as farmhands, luring three homeless people and one man with a home and family, Nikolai Semykin. But instead of honest work for an honest wage, the Khalitov brothers' laborers spent several months making bricks, pasturing cows, and working on construction projects, receiving in return only abuse and starvation rations. According to the report, Semykin's overseers chained him up at night to prevent him from escaping.

The Khalitov brothers face prison sentences of up to fifteen years if they are convicted. But Zhemis Turmagambetova, deputy director of the nongovernmental Kazakhstan's International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that widespread corruption in the country's judicial system ensures that many slavery cases never reach the courts.
On the farm, their home was a ramshackle barrack. The work day began at 7:00 a.m. and ended at 11:30 p.m., with a pause for a bite to eat at 5:30 p.m. They sorted eggs.

Local police chief Serik Utembaev told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that this is the second reported case of slavery in Kazakhstan. Aleksandr Stepenko escaped from modern-day slaveholders in Almaty Oblast in April 2004, "Ekspress-K" reported on 25 May. According to Stepenko, he was kidnapped in August 2002 and brought to a cattle farm. He worked there for more than a year and a half without a day off, receiving no salary and eating scraps from the farm owner's table.

International Migration Organization representative Ekaterina Babikova told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that such incidents are common not only in Kazakhstan, but throughout Central Asia and in Russia. Though the two cases noted above involve individuals pressed into service as slaves, other instances are less clear-cut, if equally horrifying. Myriad abuses surround the increasingly common phenomenon of migrant labor. Each year, hundreds of thousands of able-bodied workers in Central Asia take to the road to escape economic hardship. Desperate for work, frequently lacking legal status, and ill-informed about what rights they may have, they are easy prey for exploitation.

A 12 May investigative report in the online Kazakh newspaper "Navigator" detailed the plight of Kyrgyz migrant laborers in Kazakhstan. As Kazakh agriculture picked up in the late 1990s, it soon required a larger workforce than the local market could, or would, provide. Kyrgyz migrants began to arrive in 1998, and now more than 10,000 of them make the trek each year, according to the report.

In the Enbekshikazakh district of Almaty Oblast, most illegal Kyrgyz migrant laborers work on tobacco plantations, where they are lucky to earn $50 for the season. According to "Navigator," employers sometimes provide decent conditions at the beginning of the season, taking advantage of the good will this creates among laborers to avoid signing any written contracts. But as the season moves along, conditions worsen, and workers are soon toiling from dusk to dawn in 100 degree Fahrenheit heat.

Housing is primitive -- 20 laborers to a converted barn, with the less fortunate forced to construct their own dwellings out of whatever they can find. Room and board are deducted from workers' salaries. Without residence or work permits, the migrant laborers are not likely to complain. Should they dare, they will find it difficult to press their case to the authorities, as plantation owners are careful to collect passports when workers arrive. And when they return, those same Kyrgyz passports serve as a signal to Kazakh border guards to demand a $10-$15 bribe from the bearer for the privilege of crossing back into Kyrgyzstan.

The phenomenon is not limited to Central Asia, as a 21 July investigation by "Moskovskii komsomolets" showed. In late March, 24 Uzbek citizens from Namangan arrived at a poultry farm 300 kilometers outside of Moscow. Erkin and Avazbek Shamatov, two brothers, were among them. Enticed by the prospect of relatively gainful employment, they spent 12 days on buses to reach Moscow. There, a woman promised them work for 4,500 rubles ($150) a month, took their passports, and brought them, along with 22 other Uzbeks, to a poultry farm in Vladimir Oblast.

On the farm, their home was a ramshackle barrack. The work day began at 7:00 a.m. and ended at 11:30 p.m., with a pause for a bite to eat at 5:30 p.m. They sorted eggs. Any infraction on the job, from an unauthorized two-minute breather to an egg on the floor, entailed a fine. And for three months, no one paid them anything.

Finally, in early June, some of the workers fled the farm and made their way to Irina Khnykova, the former head of the local rural district. She took up their case and entered into difficult negotiations with Vladimir Kovtun, the director of the farm and a prominent local businessman. Meanwhile, on 23 June, 23-year-old Elmurat Mamatkulov ran away from the farm. Guards tracked him down and beat him. On 8 July, he disappeared. He has not been seen since.

With Khnykova's help, the remaining Uzbeks left the farm. Some lingered at a nearby railway station, sleeping in the woods and doing odd jobs in the area to earn money for bread and milk. Others made their way to Moscow, hoping to return to Uzbekistan. Khnykova told the newspaper that she has received threats from unidentified individuals who approached her on the street and told her, "Stop sticking your nose into this business!"

The report notes that police are conducting an investigation into the beating of Mamatkulov, but it does not say anything about his disappearance. For his part, poultry farm director Kovtun faces fines for a number of minor violations. At most, he will have to pay 7,000 rubles ($240).

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