Uzbekistan: Progress, but Continued Forced Labor in Cotton Fields

Uzbekistan: Progress, but Continued Forced Labor in Cotton Fields

A new report on Uzbekistan’s 2019 cotton harvest by Uzbek Forum for Human Rights documents progress toward ending—but not eradication—of state-sponsored forced labor, says the Cotton Campaign.

The report, “Tashkent’s Reforms Have Not Yet Reached Us,” finds that a state-imposed cotton quota, labor shortages, lack of fair and independent recruitment channels, and weak accountability systems contribute to the continuation of forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields—and that broader reform efforts in the country are being limited by slow progress on civil society freedoms.

The report’s findings are based on more than 100 in-depth and hundreds of short interviews with people involved in the cotton harvest, as well as field visits, farm monitoring in six regions, and data and analysis from a nationwide online survey conducted in partnership with the Solidarity Center and public polling/research firm RIWI Corp.

Employees of state and privately owned enterprises in interviews consistently reported being unable to refuse orders to pick cotton by government officials or employers for fear of dismissal or other job-related consequences. About half of online survey respondents said they could not refuse when asked to go to the fields or pay for a replacement picker. This testimony underscores the pressing need to establish effective recruitment systems free from interference or coercion by the government or the authorities, says the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights.

The report also documents that reform of civil society freedoms has lagged far behind the pace of reforms in other key areas, inhibiting the freedom of citizens to form civic associations such as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and independent trade unions empowered to fight forced labor in Uzbekistan. The report notes with concern the small number of independent, self-initiated NGOs registered in the country and the high number of rejections for registration.

“Independent NGOs, unions and civic activists have a central role to play in the reform process in promoting transparency and accountability,” says Solidarity Center’s Eastern Europe/Central Asia Director, Rudy Porter. “There is a pressing need to guarantee basic civic freedoms to empower activists to conduct independent monitoring and ensure labor practices are in line with international standards.”

The U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report yesterday specified that Uzbekistan will remain on its Tier 2 watchlist because the country does not yet meet the minimum standards set out in the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The report noted that, “During 2019, the government continued to demand farmers and local officials fulfill state-assigned cotton production quotas or face penalties, which caused local officials to compel work in the annual cotton harvest.”

The Cotton Campaign, of which Solidarity Center is a member, is a global coalition of human rights, labor, responsible investor and business organizations dedicated to eradicating child and forced labor in cotton production in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. A Cotton Campaign roadmap for the government of Uzbekistan to dismantle the forced labor system of cotton production was presented to government officials during high-level meetings in Tashkent in May 2018.

Photo: Tashkent region, 2019. Credit: Uzbek Forum for Human Rights

Report Links World Bank to Uzbekistan Forced Labor

Report Links World Bank to Uzbekistan Forced Labor

The World Bank is funding half a billion dollars in agricultural projects linked to forced and child labor in Uzbekistan, said Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF) in a report released today.

Even though the Uzbek government promised the Bank that it would not use forced or child labor linked to the projects or within project areas, and the Bank promised to independently monitor for abuses and create a way for victims to seek redress, in 2015 and 2016 forced labor continued. Under the loan agreements, the Uzbek government is required to comply with laws prohibiting forced and child labor, and the World Bank can suspend the loans if there is credible evidence of violations.

“The World Bank is giving Uzbekistan cover for an abusive labor system in its cotton industry,” said Umida Niyazova, director of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights.

“‘We Can’t Refuse to Pick Cotton’: Forced and Child Labor Linked to World Bank Group Investments in Uzbekistan” details how the Uzbek government forced students, teachers, medical workers, other government employees, private-sector employees, and sometimes children to harvest cotton in 2015 and 2016, as well as to weed the fields and plant cotton in the spring of 2016. An estimated 1 million doctors, teachers, nurses and others are forced by the state to harvest cotton each year in the fall.

The report—based on hundreds of interviews and conversations with victims of forced and child labor, farmers, and key actors in the forced labor system, leaked government documents, and statements by government officials—shows that citizens continued to work in the cotton fields because of government threats of violence, firing, stopping welfare payments and the suspension or expulsion of students.

District Mayor Uktam Kurbanov reportedly said to one picker at a cotton meeting in Khazarasp, Khorezm region on September 29, 2015: “What’s this? You delivered only 1,286 kilograms? Why is that? I’ll tear your head off!”

Said a school director in the Fergana region on September 29, 2016: “I won’t call the complaint line number we were given. There is no use… All these calls [to the hotlines] will result in simple teachers and medical workers losing their jobs.”

Uzbekistan is the fifth largest cotton producer in the world. The country’s cotton industry generates more than $1 billion in annual revenue, or about a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).

The UGF and HRW are members of the Cotton Campaign, as is the Solidarity Center. The campaign works to end the injustice of forced labor in cotton harvesting in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

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