ERDENEBULGAN, ARKHANGAI PROVINCE, MONGOLIA — Allegations of herders abusing their assistants have spotlighted a key occupation that often falls beyond the boundaries of the law.
More than 18,000 assistant herders work in the country, according to the National Human Rights Commission of Mongolia, many of whom have little formal education or legal knowledge to challenge their bosses. With few regulations to protect these workers, assistant herders are often overworked and underpaid — a major human rights and labor safety challenge in a largely rural country.
The National Statistics Office of Mongolia estimates that 300,000 of the country’s 3.4 million people are herders. Many herders recruit assistants to help care for livestock. While labor law in Mongolia states that a typical workday should last eight hours, the National Human Rights Commission found that 84% of assistant herders who participated in a recent survey work overtime throughout the year. More than 40% are responsible for their own medical treatment in the event of an injury.
A revised law places some safeguards on the profession, but many herders and their assistants don’t know it exists.
Chuluunbat Enkhbat has worked as an assistant herder for more than a decade, and exemplifies the occupation’s challenges.
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On a winter day in central Mongolia’s Arkhangai province, with the outside temperature minus 9 degrees Celsius (15.8 degrees Fahrenheit), he unloads bales of hay from the back of a pickup truck. He covers his face with a black mask that only has slits for the eyes and bends down low against the wind.
As Chuluunbat works, his boss, Nyamsuren, walks up and asks him to search for lost horses about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) away. He finishes unloading the hay and sets out to find them before dark.
“Today is [Saturday],” Chuluunbat says. “But we do not have such a thing as a day off. Urgent tasks pop up like this. If I go look for and cannot find the missing horses, I might not be able to come home by midnight.”
Chuluunbat’s family has worked as assistant herders for seven different families over the past decade. “We negotiate only on salary, but other issues go with the flow,” he says. “If it does not work out, we simply give up and leave.”
About two years ago, they joined Nyamsuren, who asked to use only his first name due to concerns about legal repercussions. “Being a herder is a lifestyle rather than a job,” Nyamsuren says. “We try to teach skills and wisdom of herding cattle to our assistant herders and provide them with salary and livestock within our capacity.”
Chuluunbat works 10-hour days seven days a week. Since his family hopes to become herders, he is paid in livestock. His annual salary is 15 sheep and six goats, valued at about 6.3 million Mongolian togrogs ($2,200). His wife, Munkhtsetseg Davaajargal, assists Nyamsuren’s family with household chores, child care and milking cows in summer. Her salary is paid in subsistence goods, such as flour, rice, soap and toothpaste. Their 11-year-old daughter, Bolor Chuluunbat, also assists with the cooking, cleaning, milking and herding when she’s home from school. She doesn’t receive payment.
“The previous families we worked for promised to pay in cash, but it never happened,” Munkhtsetseg says. “And when they paid us with cattle, it was usually cattle in their worst and thinnest shapes and forms. Considering that, it is much better now.”
The average income of rural households in Mongolia is 15.6 million togrogs ($5,440) a year, according to estimates from the National Statistics Office. The average annual income of the assistant herders who participated in the National Human Rights Commission survey was less than 5.4 million togrogs ($1,883). This includes wages earned in livestock and goods.
Bayasakh Gankhuyag, an assistant herder in Selenge province in northern Mongolia, says his monthly salary is 300,000 togrogs ($105) and “barely covers food and household costs.” His employer, Javkhlan, confirmed this salary, which is well below Mongolia’s monthly minimum wage of 420,000 togrogs ($146). Javkhlan, like Nyamsuren, asked to be identified by his first name due to fear of repercussions.
“Herders see cash twice a year — if wool is high in spring, and if meat becomes expensive in summer,” Javkhlan says. “In this situation, it will be enormous pressure for herders if they should employ people and provide them with a salary of 420,000 togrogs, according to the minimum wage requirements.”
More than a third of the assistant herders who participated in the survey reported that their income barely covers their daily needs. Nearly 13% said it doesn’t even cover their daily meals.
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The government has recognized the problem. A revised version of Mongolia’s labor law took effect in January. For the first time, assistant herders are specifically included in the legislation.
Employers must provide assistant herders at least one day off per week, and provide a work environment free from discrimination, sexual harassment and other abuses. No more than 30% of the assistant herder’s salary can be paid in goods or livestock, and those nonmonetary payments must be of good quality and fair market value.
Maya Sh, a senior expert in charge of labor laws at the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection, hopes the revised law will improve some of the work challenges assistant herders face. She says the ministry partnered with the Confederation of Mongolian Trade Unions, the Mongolian Employers’ Federation and the International Labour Organization to hold trainings on the new law for both herders and assistant herders in all 21 provinces of Mongolia and the nine districts of the capital city, Ulaanbaatar.
Despite this outreach, Chuluunbat — like many assistant herders — was unaware of the new law. Nyamsuren also didn’t know his employment arrangement with Chuluunbat was no longer legal. Both he and Javkhlan say the new rules have so far had little effect on their day-to-day lives.
As Chuluunbat predicted, he didn’t return home the evening after he set out to find the lost herd. He stayed the night with a family who had spotted the missing horses about 13 kilometers (8 miles) away.
The next morning, he located the horses and herded them home. Then he finally returned to his own home, a ger not far from where his employer lives.
After his meal, it was time to go back to work.