Rights groups reject UN finding that Uzbek cotton harvest now uses little forced labour

Rights groups reject UN finding that Uzbek cotton harvest now uses little forced labour
This propaganda poster in which peasants are urged to speed up cotton production was circulated in Uzbekistan in the 1920s.
By Kanat Shaku in Almaty November 26, 2018

Rights groups including the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have cast doubt on the finding of the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) that Uzbekistan has almost entirely eliminated forced labour from its cotton fields.

The ILO made the claim in a November 22 release. It estimated that 93% of those involved in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest—sometimes described as the world’s largest recruitment operation as it requires a temporary labour force of around 2.6mn people—this year worked voluntarily. However, the UGF, which monitored seven regions of Uzbekistan and interviewed around 300 people, argued that forced labour was still systematic as student and public sector workers including teachers, doctors and nurses were still compelled to partake in cotton harvesting.

“Our evidence shows forced labour this year was still systematic and massive,” Umida Niyazova, director at the UGF, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.

“If 93 percent of cotton pickers are working voluntarily, that would still leave about 180,000 who are not. This shows there is still a serious and significant problém. There has been major progress recently but not a total victory. That will take several years,” Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher for HRW, added, in comments made to the philanthropic arm of the Thomson Reuters news agency.

The ILO’s researchers conducted as many as 11,000 interviews prior to the organisation making its statement on forced labour. The ILO report acknowledged that 7% of the workforce should be deemed involuntary labour.

“The ILO stands by its vigorous and extensive methodology,” spokesman Hans von Rohland told the foundation.

Not the best track record
The ILO does not appear to have the best track record in monitoring forced labour and child labour in Uzbekistan. It was criticised by HRW last year when it reported that the practice of child labour had been phased out in the country. HRW’s own conclusion contrasted with that of the ILO.

Forced labour in the cotton sector is largely a legacy of the Soviet era, and continued under the late autocrat Islam Karimov who ruled until late 2016. The current reform-minded presidency has been attempting to dismantle Karimov’s legacy and make Uzbekistan more foreign-investor friendly.

“In many ways, the 2018 cotton harvest was a real test for Uzbekistan," said Beate Andrees, head of the ILO’s Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work Branch. “A year ago at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, [Uzbek] President [Shavkat] Mirziyoyev committed his government to working with the ILO and the World Bank to eradicate child and forced labour in the harvest. This political commitment was followed by a number of structural changes and reforms in recruitment practices. The ILO monitors have observed that these measures are working and people on the ground can feel a real difference.”

Uzbekistan’s land allocated for cotton-growing has been reduced but the crop still stands as a major source of income in rural areas. The country of 33mn is one of the largest exporters of cotton in the world. It cotton harvest amounts to nearly 3mn tonnes a year.

The ILO has been monitoring the cotton harvest for child labour in Uzbekistan since 2013 and, as part of an agreement with the World Bank began monitoring the use of other forced labour in 2015.

The government “increased wages and introduced a differentiated pay scale so that cotton pickers are paid more per kilogramme of cotton towards the end of the harvest, when conditions are less favorable and there is less cotton to pick,” the ILO statement said. “The wage structure was further refined in 2018 to encourage mobility by rewarding those who were willing to pick in less densely populated districts with lower yields.”

Government hotlines have dealt with more than 2,500 cases of labour rights violations in the year to date, and subsequent disciplinary action included dismissals, demotions and fines, the ILO added.

Textiles and garments
Uzbekistan has started processing raw cotton with a strategy of positioning itself as a substantial manufacturer of textiles and garments.

“These are positive developments” said Andrees. “Establishing full-time, decent jobs in manufacturing would certainly be helpful to reduce the seasonal peaks in labour demand which often fuel unfair recruitment practices.”

“We have seen in many places that international garment companies can play a key role in promoting good labour standards by insisting on high standards and by implementing international best practices,” Andrees added. “There is no reason why this should not take place in Uzbekistan as well.”

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