The video from the BBC shown on Newsnight yesterday of children in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan working in the fields picking cotton was incredibly shocking. You can watch it here.
Secretly filming, the BBC reporters showed the schools closed for the duration of the harvest, and the police herding children as young as nine years old onto buses. The video shows Lorry loads of mattresses being taken to the farms, as the children are expected to sleep in the fields after working for hours in the baking sun. The cotton picked by forced child labour then appears in clothes sold in ASDA and Primark in the UK.
The film also showed film of the mechanised cotton harvest in the days when Uzbekistan used to be part of the USSR. Contrast the picture here from the Uzbek cotton harvest in 1977 with the BBC film of children picking the cotton by hand today.
Tony Cliff always used to criticise those who fell for the lie that the Soviet economy was intrinsically more backwards than the West by pointing out the implicit chauvinism of those who compared Russia with Germany in terms of living standards, but did not compare Uzbekistan with Pakistan.
In the days of the USSR, Soviet republics of Central Asia had higher living standards than other countries in the region.
Many socialists in the West still do not appreciate what a disaster the collapse of the Soviet Union has been.
Using as sources those well known apologists for Stalinism, Unicef, the World Bank and the BBC, we find that the world bank reported in 2000 that in the USSR overall incomes have dropped by 50%. In some regions, such as the Caucasus and central Asia, over half the population now live in absolute poverty – defined as living on an income of $2 per day or less.
Unicef report 18 million children on less than $2 per day, 60 million children in poverty.
Unicef reports; “In Central Asian countries less than half of 15-to-18-year-olds now attend secondary school. Ten years ago more than two-thirds attended. ” There were also at least one million displaced as refugess by war within the borders of the former USSR.
World bank: “Since the poverty levels peaked in 1999 at 41.5%, poverty was cut in half by 2002 to 19.6%. About 30 million people have improved their financial standing, however the number of people in poverty is still high – every fifth Russian lives well below the official poverty line. According to the World Bank, the most vulnerable group was the rural population. About 30.4% of the rural population lives in poverty, while 15.7% of the urban population is poor. Children under 16 have a higher incidence of poverty, about 25%. According to the report, the North Caucasus, South Siberia and parts of Central Russia are the poorest regions in Russia.”
Alexandra Ochirova, the chairperson of the Chamber’s committee (A Kremlin initiated committee) on social development said 20 million Russians live below the subsistence level, and this accounts for 15 or more percent the population. More specifically, one Russian in seven cannot meet even his or her basic demands for food and clothing.
“Poverty in Russia is very special for the fact it embraces not only separate sections of the able-bodied population, but more importantly, the ones who have employment,” Ochirova said. “These are mostly workers on government payroll, as well as children aged younger than 16 years old, the disabled and pensioners,” she said. But the most dangerous type of impoverishment is poverty among single mothers. “It’s neediness reproducing neediness,” Ochirova said. A gap in population’s earnings remains huge, too, as the incomes of 80% population decrease all the time while those of the remaining 20% continue growing”
“Russia is a unique country where poverty strikes the working population,” says Mikhail Shmakov, the president of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions. “Poverty is multiplying since the government, the country’s biggest employer, curbs a growth of wages,”
In a report to US Congress on economic state of Russia; “In January 2005, the Russian government monetized many previously in-kind social benefits for retirees, military personnel, and state employees. The cash payments, however, only partly compensated for the lost benefits. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia experienced widespread economic dislocation and a drop of close to 50% in GDP. Conditions worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s in the United States impoverished much of the population, some 15% of which is still living below the government’s official (very low) poverty level. Russia is also plagued by environmental degradation and ecological catastrophes of staggering proportions; the near-collapse of the health system; sharp declines in life expectancy and the birth rate; and widespread organized crime and corruption. The population has fallen by over 5 million in the past decade, despite net in-migration of 5 million from other former Soviet republics.”
Another interesting source is the U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration: “Prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, that country’s economic and social system worked in a practical sense — meaning most people had a place to live and food to eat. Although standards of living were below those in the West, particularly in housing, daily life was predictable. The Soviet leadership was legitimately able to say that their form of socialism had succeeded in virtually eliminating the kind of poverty that existed in Czarist Russia. Russian citizens now live in different times. The country’s transformation to a more open economic system has created, temporarily at least, a large, new group of people in poverty.”
A recent TV series followed 21 year olds from the former USSR (you know one of those progs that follow people every 7 years) and it was heartbreaking. Whole towns that previously had viable industries now at a subsistence level. There was an interesting report recently on the BBC about how there has been a disastrous collapse of bio-diversity in Siberia, as in eastern Russia people have had to return to hunting for basic subsistence.
In the former DDR, comprehenisve education lost, rent controlled apartments lost, full employment lost. abortion rights reduced, full employment lost. Former citizens of the DDR discriminated against as their academic qualifications not recognised, paid lower wages than Wessies, etc. Yugoslavia has been consumed by ethnic conflict.
Even if we take one of the economic success stories, Lithuania, we find that country is the biggest source of women traded as slaves into prostitution, according to the International labour organisation. Hungary has become a centre for exploitation sex tourism.
When some comrades talk about the restoration of capitalism in the former Comecon countries as just a “step sideways”, perhaps they should look at the real consequences?