A group of workers in Uzbekistan has faced its state-owned employer and made demands.
That is something unheard of in Uzbekistan for many years. It would practically have been treason when Islam Karimov was president of Uzbekistan.
But Karimov died in September, and new Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyaev has been talking a lot about the responsibility of authorities to the people.
Seems someone believed him.
That someone is a group of employees at UzGazOil gas stations. Actually, they are now employees of Uzbekneftegaz gas stations, since in February the company rebranded. (Or, more appropriately, translated the company’s name into Uzbek. Uzbekneftegaz, in Uzbek, means "Uzbek oil and gas.")
RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, spoke to some of the workers who were at this unusual meeting with company officials on April 20 in Tashkent.
Rebranding was at the heart of the matter, since many gas-station employees were reportedly under the impression the new name would mean the company’s management would be changed and they would finally be paid on time.
Nothing of the sort.
One of the complaints made at the meeting with Uzbekneftegaz officials was that wages -- at least full wages -- had not been paid since the company changed its name.
"I haven’t received my salary for two months already," one employee told Ozodlik. "I went to the accountant, but instead of giving me my salary, which should have been 1 million soms" -- or about $125 -- "they gave me only 300,000 soms."
This source said he soon discovered he was not the only employee with this problem, and others from Uzbekneftegaz confirmed to Ozodlik that they have had similar problems.
So he went to the April 20 meeting, along with many other Uzbekneftegaz employees.
"The hall was filled with people," he said. "[At the meeting] there were those who had not received their salaries and those who were dismissed and not paid any severance."
Another complaint by Uzbekneftegaz employees was that some of their co-workers had reportedly been dismissed without grounds since the company rebranded.
According to this Uzbekneftegaz employee, the company’s director, Batyr Turaev, attended, along with two other company officials. There are two videos, purportedly from the meeting.
One shows a man saying he has eight children and that he was unfairly fired. "Why didn't they give me severance pay?" he asks, adding. "How can I feed my children now?"
Workers in the hall shouted out their support:
The other video shows a man believed to be Uzbekneftegaz chief Turaev trying to calm the workers:
While workers at the meeting in Tashkent appeared able to voice their complaints to management, there was no indication that any of their demands would be met.
However, there has also been no word so far that any of the employees who complained at the meeting were punished or threatened in any way, as would almost surely have been the case when Karimov was Uzbekistan’s president.
Another Uzbekneftegaz employee who was at the meeting said that he, too, had earlier approached officials demanding his unpaid salary. This employee said officials at Uzbekneftegaz told him -- before the meeting, and in an implied threat -- that he would be put on a list compiled by the National Security Service (SNB).
He said that to head off other employees from demanding unpaid wages, management would call some employees and tell them, "People from the SNB were asking about you."
Again, so far, there is no indication the SNB has actually become involved in the Uzbekneftegaz labor dispute. Comments about the SNB from management seem to be playing on fears from earlier days that the powerful security agency could step in and quiet the situation.
After the Tashkent meeting, a rumor circulated that Turaev had been dismissed.
Ozodlik contacted Uzbekneftegaz and was told, "Batyr Turaev has not gone anywhere. He comes to work every day."
Turaev is an interesting figure.
Once, a company called Zeromax that was registered in Switzerland owned the gas stations of UzGazOil. For many years, Zeromax was virtually the only Western company to get contracts in Uzbekistan’s gas-and-oil sector, a situation some attributed to the company’s alleged links to Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of the late President Karimov, who was then spending a lot of time in Switzerland.
Zeromax’s fortunes started to wane and the company’s stake in UzGazOil gas stations was given over to the Uzbek government in 2010.
In 2012, a former employee of Zeromax was named director-general of UzGazOil.
That person was Batyr Turaev.
Returning to the Uzbekneftegaz gas-station employees and their grievances, some of the workers told Ozodlik that they had sent their complaints to the Uzbek government’s virtual-office website and were waiting for a response.
They also said that airing their problems so publicly was fully in accordance with Mirziyaev’s statements that, in this Year Of Dialogue With The People, which the country declared for 2017, officials were obliged to resolve the problems of the people.