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
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.
Although the government of Uzbekistan has made progress on ending child and adult forced labor in the cotton fields after more than a decade of international pressure, a new report finds that forced labor remains rampant in other arenas of Uzbek life, affecting public-sector workers in particular. This practice undermines the quality of public services and depletes workers’ earnings, as they must bear the costs of their own forced labor.
The report, “There Is No Work We Haven’t Done: Forced Labor of Public-Sector Employees in Uzbekistan,” released today by the Solidarity Center and Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF), outlines the devastating toll forced labor has on workers and essential public services, particularly in health care and education, where trained specialists are taken out of work for hours, days or even weeks to perform manual labor at the whim of officials.
Last March, 23-year-old teacher Diana Enikeeva was struck and killed by a truck while she and other teachers were cleaning the highway in the Samarkand region in preparation for a visit by Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. According to the report, although Enikeeva’s death raised a public outcry in popular and social media, prompting the president to order officials to stop using public-sector employees and students for “public” work such as street cleaning in May 2018, the work was not out of the ordinary for public-sector employees, including teachers, and did not stop.
Interviews conducted by a team of UGF monitors in nine regions in Uzbekistan over two months in spring 2018 with public employees and others affected by forced labor revealed that government officials were using public-sector employees under threat of penalty as a constant source of labor and funds to fulfill local needs or centrally imposed mandates. Some workers reported that their unions—which are weak and subordinate to government and/or employers—sometimes assisted in organizing or directing their forced labor.
Public-sector workers, among the lowest-paid professionals in the country, reported that they were forced to provide manual labor for community maintenance and beautification, street cleaning, wheat harvesting and collection of scrap metal and paper. Teachers, health care workers and employees of state agencies said they were routinely sent to clean streets, plant flowers, do construction work, dredge ditches and perform public maintenance for hours or days every week, without extra pay. Under the community maintenance program “Obod Kishlok” [Well-Maintained Village], announced by the president in March 2018, local officials forced public employees to bear full responsibility for repairing, painting and gardening, even at private houses. Workers reported often paying for costs associated with forced labor, including for food and transportation to forced labor assignments as well as for construction supplies, tools and flowers and seedlings for planting. Several children and farmers also reported that children and teachers were taken out of class to harvest silk cocoons under threat of penalty.
“Given that forced labor continues in Uzbekistan, even after the president and some other government officials have publicly condemned it, authorities must urgently and immediately address the systemic root causes of forced labor—the lack of independent and representative labor unions, absence of effective complaint and accountability mechanisms, rampant corruption, lack of accountability of local authorities, centrally imposed mandates and a punitive and exploitative agricultural system,” said Abby McGill, senior program officer for Eastern Europe and Central Asia at the Solidarity Center.
Read the report in Russian and Uzbek.
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
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.
Aldaberdi Karimov, 42, who lives in a remote Kyrgyzstan village in the Batken region, did not want to migrate from his country to find work to support his family, including his daughter, Ak Maral, now 5 years old.
But like many in Kyrgyzstan, where remittances from workers abroad make up more than 25 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, Karimov faced the heart-wrenching decision to leave his family to find employment. In fact, so few good jobs are available in the country, especially for workers in rural areas, only 24 percent of Kyrgyz workers are employed in the formal economy.
Aldaberdi Karimov escaped from forced labor and is back in his Kyrgyz village with his family, including his daughter, Ak Maral. Credit: Solidarity Center
And when he left his village, Karimov had no idea he would be a target of force labor and human trafficking. Globally, more than 21 million people are in forced labor, according to the International Labor Organization, which on July 30 marks World Day against Trafficking in Persons.
Forced to Live with Cows in the Barn
Karimov first sought jobs in Russia and then migrated to Kazakhstan, where he worked as a market vendor in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city. Karimov thought he would fare better in Kazakhstan because, like Kyrgyzstan, it is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union.
Between 100,000 to 150,000 Kyrgyz were registered in Kazakhstan at the end of 2017, figures that do not reflect many who are not registered, according to a new report by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). Most work without written contracts or on contracts that do not adequately protect their rights. Their passports typically are confiscated by employers, making it difficult for them to leave abusive jobs, and they have no access to labor protections like safe working conditions and paid leave.
Karimov could not afford the permit needed to sell goods legally in Kazakhstan—costing between $1,500 and $2,000, a permit is the equivalent of a year’s wage. Through an intermediary, he and his brother, Giyazidin, were led to a job on a Kazakh farm in June 2016 tending 100 cows and 2,000 sheep. The farmer said he would pay them 40,000 tenge ($117) each per month.
“The employer promised to pay us not every month, but once every three or four months,” Karimov says. “After three months, we asked for an advance and our employer became very angry and said that the cows and sheep are very thin, so he is not going to pay yet.”
By October, they each had been paid only $100 for six months’ work. Frost and cold rains began and when the brothers asked to be housed in a warmer environment than their small thatched hut in the field, the employer told them to live with the cows and rams in the barn.
Tens of Thousands of Workers in Forced Labor in Kazakhstan
Essentially trapped in forced labor, the brothers made their escape after Giyazidin became so ill that the farmer took him to the hospital. Tens of thousands of workers are estimated to be victims of forced labor in Kazakhstan, with migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan forced to labor in agriculture, construction and the extraction industry.
Like many migrant workers, neither Karimov nor his brother reported their abuse to the police because they did not trust them. In fact, officers of law enforcement agencies often are the link between migrant workers and “buyers” of labor, according to the FIDH report.
Karimov says lack of a labor contract and no police protection left him and his brother vulnerable to human traffickers and inhumane working conditions. Around the world, most migrant workers are denied the right to form unions and bargain with their employer—a fundamental freedom that enables abuse and exploitation. “The lack of labor agreements entails forced labor and even slavery,” says Aina Shormanbayeva, president of the Legal Initiative, a Kazakhstan-based public foundation.
Now back in his village, Karimov says migrating for jobs is now out of the question, even as he searches for work, still seeking wages that will enable him to support his family