Uzbek Union Leader Released from Prison

Uzbek Union Leader Released from Prison

Uzbek union activist Fakhriddin Tillayev, in prison on a 10-year sentence and subjected to torture for attempting to organize an independent union for day laborers, was released over the weekend.

Tillayev’s release was among the results sought by a Cotton Campaign delegation, now in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital, for unprecedented meetings with government officials, civil society advocates and human rights monitors to discuss the eradication of forced labor. During last fall’s harvest, the Uzbek government forced 336,000 people—including teachers, doctors and students—to work in the country’s cotton fields, picking a crop that generates nearly a quarter of the nation’s GDP, according to an International Labor Organization (ILO) survey. The Cotton Campaign believes the number of those forced to labor is higher.

Tillayev’s release “is a very positive step by the government,” says Solidarity Center Europe and Central Asia Regional Program Director Rudy Porter, who met with Tillayev after his release.  Human Rights Watch, the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, Cotton Campaign staff and the Solidarity Center all followed Tillayev’s case closely since his sentencing in 2014 and raised demands for his release in each meeting with the government.

Tillayev and his fellow activist, Nuriddin Jumaniyazov, were falsely accused of human trafficking, tortured and convicted in proceedings that violated fair trial standards. Jumaniyazov, who was sentenced to six years on the same charges as Tillayev, died in prison of complications related to diabetes in December 2016, information that was not made public until June 2017.

Tillayev said he and Jumaniyazov were arrested after they collected membership applications for an independent union from many people looking for day labor at eight markets in Tashkent.

“They had no other work, they needed protection, they needed their own union.​ The Administrative Court fined each of us 7 million Soum [$875] because we organized an independent union. They banned the independent union. And then they came up with a criminal offense to put us away for good.”

Seeking a Formal Plan to Dismantle State-Sponsored Forced Labor

Cotton Campaign coalition representatives are in Uzbekistan seeking legal and policy reforms to end the mobilization of education and healthcare workers to harvest cotton. They also are calling for an to end the practice of forcing those who refuse to go to the fields to pay for replacement workers.

The delegation seeks a formal plan to dismantle the forced labor system, and an accountability mechanism that allows for secure complaints and legal actions against officials who mobilize citizens. The Cotton Campaign delegation does not include forced labor monitors and will not assess Uzbekistan’s progress toward eliminating forced and child labor in cotton production.

Uzbekistan, Steve Swerdlow, Human Rights Watch, cotton, forced labor, Solidarity Center, worker rights

Steve Swerdlow from Human Rights Watch says “one of the biggest developments in Uzbekistan has been the release of political prisoners.” Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell

The Cotton Campaign sees these meetings as among “recent encouraging signs that the Uzbek government is willing to talk about the subject of forced labor.” Last week, the government released journalists imprisoned on political grounds.

Noting that Uzbekistan has released 28 political prisoners in the past 20 months, Steve Swerdlow, Human Rights Watch Central Asia researcher, says “one of the biggest developments in Uzbekistan has been the release of political prisoners.”  Swerdlow spoke May 14 as part of an Uzbekistan-sponsored press conference in Washington, D.C., to discuss its progress on human rights and prospects for improvement.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev acknowledged forced labor in cotton production in a speech at the United Nations in September, the first time a high-ranking Uzbek government official had done so in a public forum. Mirziyoyev again repudiated forced labor in April when he referenced teachers being mobilized for street cleaning and other “public works.”   With its partners in the Cotton Campaign, the Solidarity Center advocates for the complete eradication of forced labor and forced child labor in Uzbekistan.

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.

Uzbekistan Forced Labor Linked to World Bank Loan

Uzbekistan Forced Labor Linked to World Bank Loan

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), according to a coalition of human rights groups.

The June 30 complaint seeks an investigation into forced labor connected to a $40 million loan to Indorama Kokand Textile, which operates in Uzbekistan. The forced labor victim, who requested confidentiality, and the rights defenders Dmitry Tikhonov, Elena Urlaeva and a third who requested confidentiality, presented 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.

“The IFC should support sustainable rural development in Uzbekistan, not projects that perpetuate the government’s forced-labor system for cotton production,” says Tikhonov, who lives is in exile in France following possible retaliation—including the burning of his home—for his efforts to document forced labor in Uzbekistan.

“The ombudsman should investigate the IFC loan to Indorama, which we believe violates international law and the IFC’s own policies prohibiting forced labor.” The Cotton Campaign, the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, the International Labor Rights Forum, and Human Rights Watch jointly announced the complaint.

1 Million in Forced Labor Each Year

Each year, the Uzbek government, which controls all of the country’s cotton production and sales, forces more than 1 million teachers, nurses and others to pick cotton for weeks. Last year, the government went to extreme measures—including jailing and physically abusing researchers independently monitoring the process—to cover up its actions.

Uzbekistan was downgraded to the lowest ranking in the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report which was released last month.

The World Bank has invested more than $500 million in Uzbekistan’s agricultural sector. Following a complaint from Uzbek civil society, the bank attached loan covenants stipulating that the loans could be stopped and subject to repayment if forced or child labor was detected in project areas by monitors from the International Labor Organization (ILO), contracted by the World Bank to carry out labor monitoring during the harvest.

The World Bank approved the loan to Indorama in December 2015, despite an ILO report reaffirming the problem of forced labor.

In March, Cotton Campaign, a coalition of labor and human rights groups that includes the Solidarity Center, presented a petition signed by more than 140,000 people from around the world to World Bank President Dr. Jim Yong Kim, calling on the bank to suspend lending to the agriculture sector in Uzbekistan until the Uzbek government changes its policy of forced labor in the cotton industry.

Read the complaint here.

Cotton Cover-Up: Uzbekistan Whitewashes Forced Labor

Cotton Cover-Up: Uzbekistan Whitewashes Forced Labor

The Uzbekistan government again forced more than 1 million teachers, nurses and others to pick cotton for weeks during last fall’s harvest. But this time, the government went to extreme measures—including jailing and physically abusing those independently monitoring the process—to cover up its actions, according to a new report.

“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.

Further, Uzbek officials in some cases forced teachers, students and medical workers to sign statements attesting that they picked cotton of their own will and agreeing to disciplinary measures, including being fired or expelled, if they failed to pick cotton. It instructed people to lie to monitors saying they came to pick cotton of their own volition.

Uzbekistan, cotton, forced labor, human rights, Solidarity Center

Roughly 1 million teachers, nurses and other workers are forced each year to toil in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields. Credit: Uzbek-German Foundation

Covering Up for Cash
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.

The World Bank has invested more than $500 million in Uzbekistan’s agricultural sector. Following a complaint from Uzbek civil society, the bank attached loan covenants stipulating that the loans could be stopped and subject to repayment if forced or child labor was detected in project areas by monitors from the International Labor Organization (ILO), contracted by the World Bank to carry out labor monitoring during the harvest.

Last week, the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of labor and human rights groups that includes the Solidarity Center, presented a petition signed by more than 140,000 people from around the world to World Bank President Dr. Jim Yong Kim, calling on the bank to suspend lending to the agriculture sector in Uzbekistan until the Uzbek government changes its policy of forced labor in the cotton industry.

Farmers and business owners also were coerced by the government, the report found. Farmers are forced to plant state-ordered acreage of cotton and wheat or face the loss of their land. In 2015 the government relied on law enforcement to monitor and control the agricultural process and instill fear in farmers. Police regularly patrolled cotton fields, inspected farms and monitored workers and the harvest progress.

Officials and business owners, under pressure to support the national cotton harvest plan, ordered 40 percent or more of their employees to pick cotton, often in written directives.

Uzbekistan, Elena Urlaeva, forced labor, cotton, human rights, Solidarity Center

Elena Urlaeva (right), was arrested at least four times and physically abused in prison for her work monitoring forced labor practices in Uzbekistan. Credit: Uzbek-German Forum

Physically Abused in Prison
Among independent monitors harassed by the Uzbek government, long-time human rights and civic activist, Elena Urlaeva, was arrested at least four times during the 2015 cotton harvest as well as twice during the spring planting and weeding season.

The head of the Tashkent-based Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, Urlaeva reported that she was injected with sedatives, stripped searched and forced to go without sanitation facilities during one incarceration last year. Another time, Urlaeva, her husband, their 11-year-old son and a family friend and farmer who had invited them to stay on his land were arrested because Urlaeva “photographed the fields without permission.”

For years, the Uzbekistan government has forced health care workers, teachers and others to pick cotton for 15 to 40 days, working long hours and enduring abysmal living conditions, including overcrowding and insufficient access to safe drinking water and hygiene facilities.

Forced Labor Rampant in Uzbekistan Fall Cotton Harvest

Forced Labor Rampant in Uzbekistan Fall Cotton Harvest

Health care workers in Uzbekistan are toiling in cotton fields and third- and fourth-year university students are now on their way as well, forced by the government to labor in the country’s fall harvest, according to stories compiled by the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights. The nonprofit organization also is highlighting news that minors again may be forced into picking cotton.

Each harvest season, the government mobilizes more than 1 million residents to pick cotton through systematic coercion, “with profits benefiting the government elite rather than the people,” according to a statement by the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of organizations that includes the Solidarity Center.

During the 2014 harvest, the government mobilized more public employees than in previous years, likely to make up for fewer child laborers, according to a 2015 Uzbek-German Forum report. Uzbekistan has cut back on the use of child labor in the cotton fields following worldwide condemnation.

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.

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.

At least 17 people died and numerous people were injured in last year’s cotton harvest due to poor or unsafe working and living conditions. Workers are forced to toil long hours often without access to clean drinking water and typically work without crucial safety and health gear, exposed to toxic pesticides and dangerous equipment.

“Food is not provided. Everyone must bring their own bread and tomatoes,” says one health care worker. “The cotton is very low. In the sand there are a lot of snakes.”

Many employees are threatened with loss of employment, loss of utilities and other public services, fines and criminal prosecution if they do not participate in the cotton harvest. Those who refuse to participate in the cotton harvest may even see their pensions and other work benefits cut.

Uzbek police twice assaulted human rights monitor Elena Urlaeva this year, once in May for documenting forced labor in the cotton fields and again in August for distributing pamphlets explaining laws that prohibit forced labor.

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.” The designation means the State Department claims Uzbekistan does not fully comply with the U.S. Trafficking Victims and Protection Act (TVPA) standards 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 the 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.

United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said during a June visit to Uzbekistan that more must be done now to address “the mobilization of teachers, doctors and others in cotton harvesting, and prevent the maltreatment of prisoners.” Dozens of labor and human rights organizations, including the Solidarity Center, had sent a letter to Ban Ki-moon urging him to raise the issue of forced labor.

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