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

Turkmen Labor Activist Released from Prison after 3 Years

Turkmen Labor Activist Released from Prison after 3 Years

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.

 

Fewer Workers Forced to Prepare Uzbek Cotton Fields

Fewer Workers Forced to Prepare Uzbek Cotton Fields

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

Uzbekistan, Solidarity Center, Fakhriddin Tillayev, human rights, forced labor, unions

Human rights activist Fakhriddin Tillayev (right) was among political prisoners Uzbekistan released this year. Credit: Solidarity Center

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.

Children Forced to Labor in Turkmenistan Cotton Fields

Children Forced to Labor in Turkmenistan Cotton Fields

Truckloads of children were sent to pick cotton during the Turkmenistan fall harvest, according to a new report by the Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN), an independent media and human rights organization. The children, along with tens of thousands of civil servants, including pregnant teachers, were forced to pick cotton for weeks in a government-led mass mobilization of forced labor that began August 15 and lasted through December.

In a secret order, “the local education department even sent a memo to the schools in [Ruhabat and Baharly] districts to organize the mobilization of children for the harvest during the fall break,” according to the report. ATN sources also reported a massive use of forced and child labor in several districts of Dashoguz, Lebap and Mary provinces.

Turkmenistan, forced labor, cotton harvest, child labor, human rights, Solidarity Center

“The cotton harvest feels like serfdom because you go to work in a rich man’s land”—public utility worker. Credit: ATN

A teacher told ATN that pregnant teachers showed their principal a doctor’s certificate to be excused from field work, but the principal forced them to go—and ramped up their cotton collection quota from 110 pounds a day to 132 pounds. Another source reports officials at institutions, like local schools, financially benefit from the use of forced labor.

A public utility service worker in Dashoguz province told ATN that if workers refused to pick cotton, they will lose their job. “The boss will happily hire someone else for your job and even get a bribe for it. Unemployment is so high in Dashoguz that bosses won’t have hard time finding your replacement.”

Although most of the cotton harvest takes place on government-run land, scores of cotton pickers also say they were forced to work in either private fields or lands leased long-term by wealthy landlords or high government officials. “The cotton harvest feels like serfdom because you go to work in a rich man’s land,” says the public utility worker.

Human Rights Abuses Rampant

The Turkmen government “tightly controls all aspects of public life and systematically denies freedoms of association, expression and religion,” according to Human Rights Watch. Gaspar Matalaev, an activist who provided photographs documenting child labor during Turkmenistan’s cotton harvest, was arrested in 2016 and is serving a three-year prison sentence on trumped-up fraud charges. He has reportedly been subjected to torture by electric current to force him to confess to false charges of minor fraud.

Turkmenistan remained in the lowest ranking in the U.S. State Department’s 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report, meaning the government does not comply with minimum U.S. Trafficking Victims and Protection Act (TVPA) standards and is not making significant efforts to become compliant.

The Turkmenistan government “continued to use the forced labor of reportedly tens of thousands of its adult citizens in the harvest during the reporting period,” according to the report. “It actively dissuaded monitoring of the harvest by independent observers through harassment, detention, penalization, and, in some cases, physical abuse.”

In neighboring Uzbekistan, where 1 million public employees are forced to pick cotton each fall harvest, children also were forced into the fields this past fall. The government had stopped the practice in recent years following campaigns by international human rights organizations, low rankings in the US Trafficking in Persons Report and threats by the World Bank to curtail funding.

Child Labor Returns to Uzbekistan’s Cotton Fields

Child Labor Returns to Uzbekistan’s Cotton Fields

In recent years, Uzbekistan has increased the number of public-sector workers required to pick cotton, because the country nearly ended child labor in 2014 after pressure from the international community, including the Solidarity Center. Recent reports, however, indicate that the practice of forcing children to pick cotton has not ended in all parts of the country, with children sent to the fields.

The return of child labor is one of many examples showing that Uzbekistan’s promised reforms have not yet fully become reality, and the Uzbek cotton fields remain full of abusive practices, even resulting in death. Najmiddin Sarimsoqov, 58, became the first victim to lose his life in the Uzbekistan cotton fields this harvest season when he died of a brain hemorrhage as he prepared to pick cotton in Jizzakh Region’s Zafarobod District on October 8.

Each year, the Uzbekistan government forces approximately 1 million people to work in the country’s cotton fields, picking a crop that makes up nearly a quarter of the nation’s GDP. The Walk Free Foundation, a group committed to ending forced labor, estimates that 4 percent of the country’s population is sent to the fields.

According to experts, the situation in Uzbekistan is unique, since the work is mandated by the government, a practice that dates back to the Soviet era. This makes monitoring and addressing the situation in Uzbekistan even more difficult, because monitoring must be conducted in tandem with Uzbekistan officials.

According to the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of organizations “dedicated to eradicating child and forced labor in cotton production,” of which the Solidarity Center is a member, the Uzbek government’s practice of forcing doctors, nurses, and teachers to work in the fields is extremely detrimental to the nation’s health and education services.

This year, however, the Uzbek government claims to have sent many of these public-sector employees out of the fields and back to their schools and jobs. The decision, made by President Shavkat Miriziyoyev, presumably comes after Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, put pressure on the country to end the horrific practice. However, this situation has not been remedied.

Many of the public employees no longer forced to work are instead required to pay their replacements at costs that are unaffordable. Some teachers, who had been sent back to their classrooms from the fields, were forced to pay $40 to local officials, half of their monthly salary.

Praise for Uzbekistan Liberalized Labor Laws ‘Premature’

Steve Swerdlow, a Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, called praise of the news regarding Uzbekistan’s supposedly liberalized labor laws “premature,” as long as activists face threats of violence and detention. “President Mirziyoyev’s government should send an unambiguous message to independent activists and cotton monitors that their work is valued and that they will be free to monitor this cotton harvest without retaliation or interference,” he adds.

The Solidarity Center and its partners have long been involved in the fight against forced labor in Uzbekistan. A report released earliert this year highlighted worker rights abuse in areas with World Bank investments. Even more recently, the Uzbek-German Forum published a report on forced labor in these areas, highlighting the World Bank’s failures to stop the practice in areas where it invests, such as  Karakalpakstan, a region in the western area of the country. Together with its partners in the Cotton Campaign, the Solidarity Center has joined in calling on the World Bank to live up to its promises in Uzbekistan.

Despite government claims to the contrary, it is clear that Uzbekistan’s cotton fields are still rife with forced labor and child labor, and the Solidarity Center and its allies will continue the struggle for decent work in Central Asia and beyond.

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