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The Doctor Will See You -- As Soon As He's Done Street-Cleaning

In April, an Uzbek citizen journalist captured medical workers cleaning the streets in Tashkent.
In April, an Uzbek citizen journalist captured medical workers cleaning the streets in Tashkent.

Patients of a state-run medical facility in a town in eastern Uzbekistan try to avoid Friday visits. That's the day doctors and nurses in Quvasoy have different duties to tend to -- sweeping the streets and cleaning up garbage.

"Our patients wait in lines for us to return from street-sweeping," a doctor from Quvasoy's main, state-run, medical facility told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service on July 6.

Speaking on condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisal, she said that the town's mayor, Adham Ziyavutdinov, was responsible for ordering medical workers to participate in compulsory clean-up duty, a practice that dates to the Soviet era.

"Authorities don't think about the patients," the doctor said. "We are doctors, our job is to treat patients, not to sweep streets."

Another Quvasoy medic, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the mayor "has allocated a 'territory' next to the facility for us to clean every Friday."

Several other employees at the medical facility, all of whom spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, confirmed that medics were assigned to clean-up duty.

One official at the Quvasoy medical center confirmed the employees' claim, but he said that most of those who take part are technical staff, and that they participate voluntarily.

RFE/RL reached the Quvasoy mayor's office for comment but was hung up on after asking a question.

Forced Labor

Despite the central government's promises to end the longstanding practice of ordering state employees to participate in street cleaning, tree planting, or other initiatives, the practice remains commonplace in Uzbekistan. Doctors, teachers, and university students are among those expected to lend a hand.

Uzbek officials downplay the situation, describing the practice as a "hashar," a local tradition under which citizens -- often in groups from the same neighborhood -- volunteer their labor.

Critics, however, call it forced labor.

On April 17, Prime Minister Abdulla Oripov announced that forced labor, involving doctors, teachers, and other state employees was a breach of the law and should be investigated by prosecutors and other law-enforcement agencies.

Uzbekistan has long been criticized for the practice of forced labor in its cotton industry, but local activists say the cotton fields are not the only place where authorities exploit public-sector workers.

The Manure Business

In April, human rights activist Yelena Urlaeva documented what she described as doctors and other employees from Tashkent's N8 Family Clinic being forced to clean public spaces and a road near their workplace.

Urlaeva said there were cardiologists and neuropathologists among the employees who took part in the clean-up as patients waited for treatment.

The activist shared several photos of women in white and blue medical uniforms cleaning around the facility.

In February, a report from Samarkand's Kattaqurghon district claimed that medics from the district hospital were taking part in "voluntary" work at a construction site.

In the southern Surkhondaryo Province, doctors were given the unusual task of determining out how much manure each rural household possessed.

"We are ordered to go villages that are located 8-10 kilometers away to ask how much animal dung they have," a doctor from the sanitary-epidemiological center in the province's Shurchi district told RFE/RL in January.

"There is no public transport there, so we get a taxi. Out of the 70 employees in our center, some 10 people are always engaged in searching for manure instead of doing what we're supposed to do as medics," the doctor said on condition of anonymity.

The clinic officials confirmed the claim, saying it had been ordered by local authorities in an effort to help farmers. District authorities told RFE/RL that they were unaware of the initiative.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service