“We saw some positive signs, especially a move by the government to free a trade unionist who was in prison, who had been tortured, [but] we want to see the acknowledgment of the problem go all the way down the line—all ministries and all levels of government,” said the Solidarity Center’s Eastern Europe/Central Asia Director, Rudy Porter.
Belarus, Burundi, Mauritania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan and Turkmenistan are among the 22 countries with the worst human trafficking records in 2018, according to the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report.
The report notes that for the first time, a majority of victims in 2018 were trafficked within their countries of citizenship, especially in cases of labor trafficking.
In Turkmenistan, where the 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,” according to the report.
Further, the report states that “the continued imprisonment and abuse of an independent observer of the cotton harvest and state surveillance practices dissuaded monitoring of the harvest during the reporting period.”
Gaspar Matalaev, a labor rights activist with Turkmen.news, who monitored and reported on the systematic use of forced adult labor and child labor in Turkmenistan, remains falsely imprisoned since 2016, days after Turkmen.news published his extensive report on the country’s forced labor practices.
He has been tortured with electric shocks and held incommunicado, according to the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of organizations, including the Solidarity Center, working to end forced labor in the cotton fields. (Send a message to the Turkmenistan government to immediately release Matalaev.)
Uzbekistan, another country with vast, state-sponsored forced labor in the cotton fields, remained on the watch list, a ranking indicating more progress by the government than in Turkmenistan. Although the Uzbekistan government has made strides in ending forced labor, public-sector employees continue to be coerced into a variety of construction and municipal service work, as documented in a recent report by the Solidarity Center and the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF). In addition, at least 175,000 people were forced to harvest cotton in Uzbekistan’s 2018 harvest.
Migrant Workers Vulnerable to Exploitation, Trafficking
The Trafficking in Persons report also details how labor recruiters often act as human traffickers, taking advantage of migrant workers who lack information on the hiring process, are unfamiliar with legal protections and options for recourse, and often face language barriers.
“Certain unscrupulous recruitment practices known to facilitate human trafficking include worker-paid recruitment fees, misrepresentation of contract terms, contract switching, and destruction or confiscation of identity documents,” the report states.
The report continues: “Low-wage migrant laborers are extremely vulnerable to and at high risk of exploitative practices such as unsafe working conditions, unfair hiring practices, and debt bondage—a form of human trafficking.”
Each year, the State Department ranks countries in one of four tiers, basing its assessment primarily on the extent of governments’ efforts to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking outlined in the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). Countries at the bottom, Tier 3, fail to show they are making any effort to end human trafficking.
The State Department has issued the report annually since 2001, following passage in Congress of the TVPA in 2000.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.