Writes Solidarity Center’s Tim Ryan: “Over the past 20 years, awareness and activism around the issues of child labor, slavery and human trafficking have grown significantly, mirrored by both growing economic inequality and broad concerns about that inequity. [There] is a clear recognition that decent work for adults can create a more secure environment for children and their opportunities for education.”
Gaspar Matalaev, a labor and human rights activist who monitored and reported on the systematic use of forced adult labor and child labor in Turkmenistan’s cotton fields, was released today after serving three years in prison on spurious charges stemming from his reporting.
Matalaev was arrested in October 2016, two days after Turkmen.news published his extensive report on state-sponsored forced labor.
He reportedly was tortured and held incommunicado while in prison, according to the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of organizations, including the Solidarity Center, working to end state-organized forced labor in Central Asian cotton fields.
The global labor and human rights communities are hailing the release, but are united in insisting Matalaev should never have been imprisoned.
“Today is not a victory for justice. Matalaev should never have spent the past three years behind bars,” according to the Cotton Campaign. “We will continue to support activists who expose the injustice of forced labor and modern slavery with the support of our global community.”
The international community rallied in support of Matalaev, with more than 100,000 people signing an online petition to the Turkmen government demanding his immediate release. Activists also picketed the Turkmen Embassy in Washington, D.C. In May 2019, the International Labor Rights Forum awarded Gaspar Matalaev the Defender of Labor Rights Award for making public the Turkmenistan government’s ongoing use of forced labor during the annual cotton harvest.
Some 70 companies, including Levi Strauss & Co and H&M, have signed the Turkmen Cotton Pledge, refusing to supply cotton from Turkmenistan as long as it is produced in a system that relies on forced labor. Additionally, 84 investors of these companies with assets of nearly $860 billion have signed a related investor statement that notes the importance of preventing the presence of Turkmen cotton in companies’ supply chains until the government ends its coercive system.
Turkmenistan: One of the World’s Worst Human Trafficking Records
Turkmenistan has one of the worst human trafficking records in the world, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report. In 2018, the report found that even as the Turkmen government “continued to engage in large-scale mobilizations of its adult citizens for forced labor in the annual cotton harvest and in public works projects, no officials were held accountable for their role or direct complicity in trafficking crimes.”
Human trafficking within countries of citizenship is especially prevalent in cases of labor trafficking, such as in Turkmenistan.
The Turkmen government “tightly controls all aspects of public life and systematically denies freedoms of association, expression and religion,” according to Human Rights Watch.
In April 2018, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said Matalaev was “subjected to arbitrary deprivation of liberty based on trumped-up charges” and his detention was “a direct result of his exercise of the freedom of expression and opinion.” The working group recommended Turkmen officials release Matalaev and compensate him, but the government ignored all calls for his early release.
A survey conducted this year by the Kyrgyzstan Federation of Trade Unions (KFTU), including unions representing mining and construction workers, found that laws against child labor in the country are inadequate and implementation is uneven, resulting in more than 250,000 children being subjected to hazardous work as recently as 2014—10 years after the country ratified the International Labor Organization convention for elimination of the worst forms of child labor. The KFTU’s survey contributed to a scheduled ILO review of core labor standards in the country.
“The engagement of underage citizens of our republic in the worst forms of child labor is an urgent problem,” concluded the KFTU.
Through interviews conducted by Insan Leilek Social Foundation in Sulyukta this year, supported by the Solidarity Center, KFTU found that many children in the area began working in mining as early as age 8, to help support their families. These children, says the KFTU, are denied a complete education, suffer “abusive treatment” and deteriorated health because of inadequate medical care and lack of protection by government agencies.
Mubarak, an 11-year-old girl living in Ak-Turpak village, said about her neighbor: “[He] on purpose summons all the neighboring children to work in his rice paddies. In the rice fields they stand up to their knees in water all day.”
The greatest contributor to child labor, says the KFTU, is lack of enforcement of laws in the informal economy and agriculture. Children are most commonly found working in street trading, domestic labor, cottage industries and agriculture, especially the cultivation of cotton, rice and tobacco.
A 2014 medical study cited by the KFTU found that 8- to 14-year-old market workers on average lifted and hauled more than 1,717 pounds per day, while 15- to 16-year-old children handled an average of almost 3,000 pounds per day.
Nearly half of the children in the countryside (48.6 percent) work, according to government statistics, and the jobs are often hazardous. Children in fields are exposed to pesticides and chemical fertilizers without protective clothing or safe-handling protocols. Citing a 2017 report by the Office of Akyikatchi (Ombudsman) of the Kyrgyz Republic, KFTU describes how children engaged in cotton cultivation that year spent more than 90 percent of their 10- to 12-hour workday in a bent position, with each child bending an average 9,000 times per day. Children engaged in rice cultivation spent more than 70 percent of their 10- to 12-hour workday with the upper body bent, with each child bending an average 19,440 times per day.
To combat the worst forms of child labor, KFTU recommends that the government create a dedicated state program for eliminating the worst forms of child labor—one which welcomes input from civil society. Other recommendations include governmental monitoring of child labor, increased legal penalties for violation of child labor laws, a government-funded campaign to educate citizens about the harmful effects of child labor and the creation of a coordinating council headed by high-ranking government officials of the Kyrgyz Republic.
The survey resulted from a Solidarity Center training for KFTU affiliates on international labor standards, during which participants developed an action plan for submitting workers’ commentary on child labor in Kyrgyzstan to the ILO.
Of the 152 million children forced to work around the world, nearly half—73 million—are engaged in hazardous work, which includes dangerous, unsafe working conditions, and work that exposes children to physical, psychological or sexual abuse, according to the U.S. Department of Labor 2017 Findings of the Worst Forms of Child Labor report released yesterday. In 2015, 168 million children labored worldwide.
Most child labor—some 70 percent—occurs in agricultural sectors, but it takes place in all industries. While the global trend in child labor is downward, in sub-Saharan Africa the proportion of children in child labor is actually rising—with one in five children engaged in child labor, according to the report. Some 48 percent of child laborers were younger than age 12.
The report also assesses countries’ progress in reducing child labor and found that three countries—Burma, Eritrea and South Sudan—received a “no advancement” assessment due to their government’s direct or active involvement in forced child labor. In total, 12 countries were assessed as making no advancement.
After years of receiving an assessment of “no advancement” for the forced mobilization of children in the cotton harvest, Uzbekistan received a “moderate advancement” for progress in reducing child labor. But the U.S. Department of Labor continues to call for an end to the mobilization of adult forced labor in cotton harvests. The Dominican Republic also received an assessment of “moderate advancement” because, in contrast to previous years in which it received an automatic “minimal advancement,” no cases were reported of children withoutidentity documents being denied access to education, an unlawful practice that mainly targeted children of Haitian descent.
Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland), moved from “no advancement” to “minimal advancement” because there was no evidence in 2017 that local chiefs were forcing children to perform agricultural work or other tasks through kuhlehla, a customary practice that requires residents to carry out communal work, including in chiefs’ houses or fields.
The report highlighted work by the Global March on Child Labor, which organized a virtual march in May and June 2018 to commemorate its 20th anniversary and spread awareness about hazardous child labor and the safety and health of young workers. The Global March, a Solidarity Center partner, is headed by Kailash Satyarthi, who won a Nobel Prize in 2014 for his lifetime commitment to the cause of eradicating child labor. Solidarity Center Asia Regional Director Tim Ryan chairs the Global March board of directors.
The Labor Department also released its annual List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, which documents more than 140 goods produced by child labor or forced labor in violation of international standards. Ten new goods were added to the 2018 list, including amber, cabbage, carrots, cereal grains, lettuce and sweet potatoes.
The “Worst Forms of Child Labor” report is required under the 2000 Trade and Development Act (TDA), and the List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor was first published in 2008, as mandated by the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. Both acts aim to promote global economic growth and build strong international trade partnerships that hinge upon the reduction of child labor, forced labor and human trafficking.
For the first time in years, large numbers of public-sector employees were not forced to carry out spring fieldwork in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields, although instances of child labor and forced labor were documented, according to a new report by the Uzbek-German Forum (UGF).
Despite progress, “No Need for Forced Labor when Farmers are Empowered to Pay Decent Wages: Spring Cotton Fieldwork 2018” finds that the government-run system of forced cotton production remains in place.
“The shift from the mobilization of workers in education and healthcare institutions to mostly voluntary labor to prepare fields this spring is significant and should be commended,” said Umida Niyazova, UGF executive director. “It is clear that structural problems remain, however.”
“Further scrutiny and careful monitoring will be required during the 2018 harvest to see how far those changes have actually gone in ending forced labor in Uzbek cotton production, and what still remains to be done,” Niyazova continued.
New Policies Enable Farmers to Hire Voluntary Workers for Spring
This spring, seven monitors for the Uzbek-German Forum conducted site visits to farms, schools, colleges, clinics, hospitals, banks, markets and local government agencies and interviewed dozens of farmers, education and medical workers, children, union leaders and local government officials.
The monitors found no large-scale organization of forced labor as occurred in past spring weeding seasons. Those who still reported being forced to work included the guards, cleaners, librarians and specialists at schools in the Bayavut district, who said that they weeded cotton fields for 15 to 20 days in May and June.
The report cites two factors behind the reduction in forced labor this spring, including higher procurement prices set by the government. Farmers are required to sell their crop to the government for a set price, and the government this year raised the price from $370 to $706 per metric ton. And for the first time, farmers were allowed to receive cash from banks. With more access to cash and higher payments, farmers are less reliant on unpaid labor for the springtime work required to produce cotton quotas set by the government.
Despite these improvements, farmers also described an overall lack of autonomy and intrusive, punitive oversight by local authorities who impose crop quotas. Penalties for missing those quotas can be severe, including physical violence and loss of one’s land, and state agents apply enormous pressure for them to be met. One farmer said to monitors: “The public prosecutor screams, ‘Quickly plant cotton.’ He threatens, he says, ‘or else I’ll have a criminal case against you.’”
In recent months, the government of Uzbekistan has been willing to talk about reducing forced labor and began releasing political prisoners, including worker rights activists.
“We are seeing unprecedented change in Uzbekistan right now, after a decade of international pressure. We hope respect for workers’ rights, especially ensuring fundamental rights for workers to organize together and negotiate for better working conditions, will follow,” said Solidarity Center’s Eastern Europe/Central Asia Director, Rudy Porter.
The Cotton Campaign, of which Solidarity Center is a member, developed a roadmap for the government of Uzbekistan to dismantle the forced labor system of cotton production, which was presented to government officials during high-level meetings in Tashkent in May 2018.