Thu, 04 Mar 2021

Workers at an oil refinery in eastern Uzbekistan have been on strike since January 10 over reported job cut plans.

Management at the refinery denies that it is mulling mass layoffs.

RFE/RL's Uzbek service, Radio Ozodlik, reported on January 19 that workers at the Altyaryk plant in the Ferghana province have resorted to sit-ins on the street to drive their point home. Footage captured by the broadcaster shows workers carrying signs bearing slogans like "Help us," "Give us work," and "Give us oil."

Employees say trouble began when the plant came under the management of Jizzakh Petroleum, a joint venture created in 2017 by state oil and gas company Uzbekneftegaz and Russia's Gazprom. Strikers say that there has been no output for nine months.

Ferghana Oil Refinery, or FNPZ, the Jizzakh Petroleum-managed entity that includes Altyaryk among its assets, in June announced its was undertaking a $300 million refurbishment of the plant with the aim of starting up production of Euro-5 standard gasoline. Work is slated for completion by 2023.

Later, in December, Jizzakh Petroleum stated on its website that it had begun modernizing the refinery. (As of January 19, though, the text of the statement in question had been replaced with gibberish Latin known as Lorem ipsum, a term for placeholder text that is inserted in websites under development.)

Mamura Sayfutdinova, a spokesman for FNPZ, denied that the Altyaryk plant had been shuttered or that the workforce was slated for cutbacks.

"This is incorrect information. We are taking steps to preserve jobs and wages for workers," Sayfutdinova told Eurasianet.

Ferghana Oil Refinery employee Sherzod, who spoke to Eurasianet on condition of anonymity, told Eurasianet, however, that Altyaryk was indeed at a standstill. Around 200 people have been moved to the company headquarters in the city of Fergana, but plant personnel have been warned that cutbacks may be coming, Sherzod told Eurasianet.

"Factory workers were told that 2,000 people would be laid off from March this year. I have not signed dismissal papers yet. I told the management that I had no other profession and could not find another job. I believe that the cutbacks are illegal, we demand justice," he said.

Sherzod said that prior to the Jizzakh Petroleum takeover, he was earning 3 million sum (about $300) monthly. After that, salaries were reduced by up to $150, he said. Other fringe benefits have also been slashed, he claimed.

The Ferghana refinery complex was at one time said to be under the control of Akbarali Abdullayev, the son of late President Islam Karimov's sister-in-law.

Despite this family link, Abdullayev nonetheless managed to fall foul of the regime. In 2014, he was charged with fraud and embezzlement, although it seems he may have managed to flee the country by that stage. In January 2017, a few months after Karimov's death, Abdullayev was arrested in Ukraine at Uzbekistan's request. He is still fighting a legal campaign against extradition.

Critics have complained that the refinery takeover last year ended one murky ownership arrangement only to be replaced with another one.

Alisher Ilkhamov, a research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, in London, complained in an article posted on Facebook in August that the passage to the Jizzakh Petroleum joint venture was done without any attempt at holding a competitive tender. Other valuable energy assets in Uzbekistan have received the same treatment.

"All these super-profitable assets are being transferred to Russian companies without transparent and open tenders, apparently thanks to personal connections," Ilkhamov wrote.

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