At least one person has died in Uzbekistan cotton fields so far this season, part of the country’s massive mobilization of compulsory labor in which nurses, teachers, students and state employees are forced from clinics and classrooms to toil for weeks picking cotton.
Komiljon Asimov, 20, a biology student at Abduhab State University, died September 11, days after university students were the first group mobilized by the Uzbek government for the fall cotton harvest. In another incident, Dilarom Juraev, 28, suffered a miscarriage in the fields.
Each harvest, Uzbekistan mobilizes more than 1 million residents to pick cotton through systematic coercion. From September through October, many classrooms shut down because teachers are among those forced to pick cotton. Health clinics and hospitals are unable to function fully with so many health care workers also toiling in the fields.
‘You Work Like a Slave from Morning to Night’
“Dinner takes place in the field again. For the dinner we are normally given watery soup,” writes one university economics student from the Andijan Agricultural Institute, who is now picking cotton. “I have no strength left. You work like a slave from morning till night, not enough food, and should sleep and wake up hungry again.”
The student, whose story was collected by the Uzbek-German Forum (UGF), describes being forced from her studies with other classmates to take part in the government-led mobilization. They are housed in a local school building emptied of students, where they sleep on a cold floor, with no showers and limited sanitary facilities.
The student says she spent hundreds of dollars of her family’s money buying food and warm clothing to prepare for working some two months in the cotton fields. Nearly 10,000 students from the four universities in the Andijan region were forcibly sent to work starting September 8.
Uzbeks Coerced into Signing ‘Voluntary Participation’ Letters
Last year, the government went to extreme measures—including jailing and physically abusing researchers independently monitoring the process—to cover up its actions. This year, the tactic appears to be widespread coercion of students, health care workers and others to sign letters indicating they are “voluntarily” participating in the cotton harvest, according to UGF. Employees are told they will lose their jobs and students threatened that they will be expelled from the university if they do not pick cotton or agree to gathering a set weight of cotton each day.
In one video, Alia Madalieva, the head nurse at Clinic No. 8 in Kokand City, dictates to employees the text for their “letter of commitment.” Seated next to a clinic employee in the cotton fields, she dictates: “If I do not collect 50 kg (kilograms) of cotton a day, I will voluntarily hand in my letter of resignation. I wrote this on my own.”
Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, another country where forced labor in cotton harvests is rampant, this year were downgraded to the lowest ranking in the U.S. State Department’s 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report. Uzbekistan, which gets an estimated $1 billion per year in revenue from cotton sales, also forces farmers to plant state-ordered acreage of cotton and wheat or face the loss of their land.
More personal stories from those forced to pick cotton and other documentation are available at UGF’s new microsite. The UGF is a member 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.
The World Bank must convey to the Uzbek government that attacks against independent monitors assessing the extent of forced labor in the country’s cotton harvest will not be tolerated. The World Bank must also outline consequences should the attacks continue, according to the Cotton Campaign.
In a July 29 letter to key World Bank officials, the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of dozens of labor and human rights groups that includes the Solidarity Center, wrote:
“The World Bank should take all reasonable measures to create an enabling environment for independent actors to monitor projects that it finances. We have not seen the bank take such measures in Uzbekistan.”
The World Bank Group is providing more than $500 million in financing to the government of Uzbekistan for its agriculture sector and additional financing to multinational companies processing forced-labor cotton in Uzbekistan.
1 Million in Forced Labor During Cotton Harvests
During each fall cotton harvest, the Uzbekistan government forces more than 1 million teachers, nurses and others to pick cotton for weeks, deeply cutting services at schools and medical facilities. Last fall, the government went to extreme measures—including jailing and physically abusing those independently monitoring the process—to cover up its actions.
“The Uzbek government’s repression of human rights monitors has made it impossible for essential mitigation measures of monitoring and grievance redress to function,” according to the coalition, which sent the letter in advance of an early August roundtable meeting of the World Bank, the Uzbek government, the International Labor Organization and diplomatic missions in Uzbekistan.
The coalition also is requesting that the World Bank “obtain an enforceable commitment from the Uzbek government to allow independent journalists, organizations and individuals to have access to all World Bank project-affected areas and to monitor, document and report about forced labor without interference or fear of reprisal.”
Uzbekistan Downgraded in US Trafficking in Persons Report
In June, an Uzbek victim of forced labor in cotton production and three human rights defenders filed a complaint against the World Bank’s private lending arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC). They seek an investigation into forced labor connected to a $40 million loan to Indorama Kokand Textile, which operates in Uzbekistan. The complaint presents evidence that the loan to expand the company’s cotton manufacturing facilities in Uzbekistan allows it to profit from forced labor and sell illicit goods.
Also in June, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, where forced labor in cotton harvests also is rampant, were downgraded to the lowest ranking in the U.S. State Department’s 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report.
Uzbek human rights defender Elena Urlaeva was released last week from a psychiatric hospital in Tashkent where she was detained against her will for more than a month, according to the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of worker rights and human rights groups that includes the Solidarity Center.
While expressing relief at Urlaeva’s release, Umida Niyazova, director of the Uzbek-German Human Rights Forum says, “We continue to be alarmed at the heightened repression campaign the Uzbek government is carrying out against those who monitor forced labor in the cotton harvest.”
For 16 years, Urlaeva has documented forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields, where some 1 million teachers, medical professionals and others are forced to toil during harvest seasons. She has been credited with helping significantly reduce child labor in cotton fields, and this year was among human rights defenders in Uzbekistan to receive the International Labor Rights Forum 2016 Labor Rights Defenders Award.
Urlaeva was arrested five times last year as she spoke with those forced by the government to labor in the country’s cotton fields, and says that she was physically assaulted during the subsequent interrogation.
Uzbek Government Crackdown on Human Rights Activists
The International Labor Organization (ILO) has pushed the Uzbek government to end forced labor. Following a complaint by Uzbek civil society, the World Bank attached covenants stipulating its loans to Uzbekistan could be stopped and subject to repayment if forced or child labor was detected in project areas by ILO monitors contracted by the World Bank to carry out labor monitoring during the harvest. In March, members of the Cotton Campaign urged the World Bank to make good on its promise.
The Uzbek government has responded to global pressure to end forced labor by cracking down on Uzbek labor rights activists who monitor cotton harvests.
A global union campaign is calling on the Uzbek government to reverse its conviction of Uzbek human rights activist Uktam Pardaev, who was sentenced to three years’ probation in January and is under constant surveillance by security services at his home. Officials also continue to harass Uktam Pardaev’s relatives and friends, who have been watched, questioned and threatened, according to global union and human rights groups.
Human rights activist Uktam Pardaev was jailed while he was monitoring last fall’s cotton harvest in Uzbekistan. Credit: IUF
ardaev, a member of an independent cotton harvest monitoring group, was arrested in November 2015 on trumped-up charges of fraud and taking a bribe. He was held for eight weeks in pre-trial detention, where he was locked in a damp, cold cell with only a dirty mat to sleep on and little food. Pardaev says he witnessed officials torturing and mistreating detainees to coerce confessions and was beaten severely on one occasion.
Pardaev was among human rights activists monitoring last fall’s cotton harvest in Uzbekistan, where more than 1 million teachers, nurses and others are forced to pick cotton for weeks each harvest season. A report released in March documented how the government took extreme measures to cover up its actions last fall, jailing and physically abused those independently monitoring the process.
“The government unleashed an unprecedented campaign of harassment and persecution against independent monitors to attempt to cover up its use of forced labor while taking pains to make widespread, massive forced mobilization appear voluntary,” according to The Cover-Up: Whitewashing Uzbekistan’s White Gold.
Uzbekistan, which gets an estimated $1 billion per year in revenue from cotton sales, faced high penalties for not addressing its ongoing forced labor. But rather than end the practice, the government sought to cover it up, according to the report, produced by the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights.
Take action now and send a message of support calling on the Uzbek government to reverse Pardaev’s conviction; conduct a prompt, independent, and impartial investigation into his credible allegations of ill-treatment by prison officials; and bring those responsible
Uzbek labor rights activist Dimitry Tikhonov says his home office has been burned and all the equipment and documentation he collected on Uzbekistan’s use of forced labor in the country’s cotton harvests has been destroyed. No other room in his home was touched by the fire, he says.
Labor rights activist Dimitry Tikhonov says his home office was burned, destroying all his documentation on forced labor in Uzbekistan. Credit: Human Rights Watch
“All papers and files containing materials from my human rights work, including forced labor, were completely burned,” he says. “My entire legal library, which I have collected over years, is completely destroyed.”
Tikhonov says the fire occurred October 20, when he was away from his home in Angren, a city near the capital, Tashkent. He reported the incident after he returned. A metal box in which he kept a backup computer hard drive was intact, but the hard drive was missing from the case. Some 100 copies of a legal guide on child labor and forced labor that he created also disappeared, although they were in a room untouched by the fire.
The International Trade Union Confederation sent a letter to Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov condemning the attack.
In late September, Tikhonov was arrested and beaten by police as he took photos of some 20 busloads of teachers and school employees forced into the cotton fields for the annual harvest.
Doctors brought in to examine Tikhonov said he had no injuries, and police officers told Tikhonov to sign a statement attesting that he had no complaints about the police. Tikhonov refused and eventually was released.
Elena Urlaeva, head of the Uzbek Human Rights Defenders’ Alliance, another labor rights activist, has been arrested, interrogated and beaten several times this year.
Each harvest season, the Uzbek government mobilizes more than 1 million residents to pick cotton through systematic coercion. From September through October, many classrooms close because teachers are among those forced to pick cotton. Health clinics and hospitals are unable to function fully as their health workers are toiling in the fields.
This year, the government of Uzbekistan is expected to make $1 billion in profit from cotton sales, money that disappears into an extra-budgetary fund in the Finance Ministry to which only the highest-level officials have access, according to the Uzbek-German Forum report
The World Bank has pledged more than $450 million to Uzbekistan, mostly for modernization of agriculture, and has committed to pull out the loans if forced labor is used in project areas. But despite widespread detailed reports of ongoing forced labor in this year’s cotton harvest, the World Bank has not withdrawn its extensive funding.
In July, the U.S. State Department boosted the ranking of Uzbekistan in its Trafficking in Persons report, moving it up to the “Tier 2 Watchlist” from its previous “Tier 3” ranking. According to the State Department, Uzbekistan does not fully comply with the U.S. Trafficking Victims and Protection Act (TVPA) but is making significant efforts to become compliant. In its 2014 report, the State Department ranked Uzbekistan as “Tier 3,” the lowest designation that means it does not fully comply with minimum TVPA standards.
Earlier this year, the Solidarity Center was among 30 global unions, business associations and nonprofit networks urging the U.S. State Department to ensure its Trafficking in Persons report accurately reflect the serious, ongoing and government-sponsored forced labor in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.