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News from around the bloc: economic support for Russian businesses; protests in Poland; Romanian seasonal workers go West; Uzbek cotton; and Russian detention centers.
Putin Promises Aid for Businesses, Extra Funding for Regions
To soften the economic blow of coronavirus quarantine measures, Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday pledged an additional 200 billion rubles ($2.7 billion) in support for Russian regions, plus more than 23 billion rubles to Russian airlines, Reuters reports. Small- and medium-sized businesses are also eligible to receive direct funding for salary payments at the level of the minimum monthly wage of 12,130 rubles for April and May, Putin said. In a rather surprising turn of events, the pandemic could lead to a rapprochement between Moscow and Washington, AFP writes. “President Putin believes this pandemic is the time to help each other,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters a day after U.S. President Donald Trump offered to send ventilators to Russia. The worsening situation in Russia might play a part in the Kremlin’s change of heart. During a video conference with health officials Monday, Putin admitted the situation was “changing almost daily and, unfortunately, not for the better,” The Moscow Times reports.
Poles Assail Proposals to Curtail Abortion and Sex Education
International organizations and critics of the Polish government are protesting proposals they say would practically ban abortion and sex education, Al Jazeera writes. Critics argue that Warsaw is using the coronavirus lockdown to stifle protests against the bills. “The chaos and anxiety surrounding COVID-19 shouldn’t be used as a distraction from harmful attempts to push through dangerous legislation,” Hillary Margolis, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, said Tuesday. Under current law, abortion is already illegal except in cases of rape, incest, severe fetal abnormalities, or where the mother’s life is at risk, the BBC writes. Both bills originated as citizens’ initiatives. One would ban abortions for fetal abnormalities, which account for 98 percent of all legal terminations. The other bill would criminalize “the promotion of underage sex” and introduce a maximum penalty of three years in prison for people who encourage anyone under the age of 18 to have sex. Critics say that would translate into an end to sexual education in schools. The Polish parliament started the mandatory review of the bills yesterday, according to the Guardian.
Correction: The headline and text of this item have been amended to clarify that the two bills originated as citizens’ initiatives, not with the government.
It’s Vegetables Over Virus as Romanian Workers Head for Germany
Faced with a severe shortage of agricultural workers, Germany is easing travel restrictions to allow Romanian workers to come and pick its crops, Balkan Insight writes. The move comes after Bucharest issued an order on 4 April making charter flights carrying seasonal workers exempt from the restrictions imposed on commercial flights during the coronavirus lockdown. German farmers say they need 80,000 workers over the next two months to harvest produce such as asparagus. Sorin Faur, a human resources expert and founder of the Bucharest-based consultancy HR Academy, told BIRN that Europe needs 800,000 to 1 million seasonal workers per year to keep the continent’s agricultural sector running. The Romanian workers coming to Germany must undergo health checks before departure and upon arrival, and then live and work separately from other farmhands for two weeks, and must wear protective gear, Euronews reports. “There will be no individual trips when you arrive here, and every company must guarantee a certain distance to be kept during transport and when people work together in groups,” German Agriculture Minister Julia Kloeckner said. Faced with a similar shortage of fruit pickers, the UK is also bringing in Romanian workers, although on a smaller scale at the moment, the BBC notes.
Tashkent Pleads for End to Cotton Boycott
Uzbekistan has asked campaigners from a coalition of human rights groups to lift a boycott of its cotton and textiles, Reuters writes. In an open letter, Uzbek Labor Minister Nozim Khusanov asked the Cotton Campaign leadership to consider the progress the country has made in eliminating forced labor in its cotton fields, as well as the economic costs of the coronavirus pandemic. “Lifting of the cotton boycott is one of the few measures that could quickly generate much-needed jobs and support the economic well-being of Uzbeks during the COVID-19 crisis,” the government said in a statement cited by Reuters. “Textile production alone employs 200,000 workers in Uzbekistan; their wages support the livelihoods of one million people.” In 2018, the UN’s International Labor Organization charged that Uzbekistan was still using forced labor in the cotton fields, even though a combination of a cotton boycott by big Western retailers, higher wages for pickers, and a less repressive government since the death of longtime leader Islam Karimov means far fewer people are pulled from schools and jobs and sent to the cotton fields every year.
HRW Asks Russia for Leniency Toward Trapped Migrants
Human Rights Watch has warned Russian authorities about the dangers of keeping people facing deportation or court-mandated expulsion in migration detention centers in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic. HRW urged the government to offer “alternatives” to detention for the more than 8,000 people, including families with children, who HRW says are in effect being held under indefinite detention because of pandemic-related travel restrictions. Similarly, Amnesty International has urged Russian government agencies to take “urgent measures” to protect the country’s prison population, which numbers more than half a million people, while activists from the Moscow Helsinki Group launched a petition asking for a major prisoner amnesty to avoid “an almost inevitable COVID-19 epidemic in prisons and detention facilities.”