Uzbekistan appears to have halted the practice of forced labour. Thousands of college students, school teachers and healthcare workers were recalled from cotton fields at the order of Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, local Gazeta.uz newspaper reported on September 23. Other media, including Reuters, referred to unnamed sources confirming the situation. The cotton harvest started this month.
While the news is a positive development for Uzbekistan, which has long-relied on forced and child labour for cotton-picking, past reports by rights groups show it could be too early to judge whether forced and child labour has been completely phased out. Human Rights Watch (HRW) on June 27 accused the World Bank and International Labour Organisation (ILO) of deliberately looking past the continued use of child and forced labour in Uzbekistan, when in autumn of 2016, both the development bank and ILO had praised Uzbekistan’s efforts in completely ending child labour.
A central government official told Reuters that an order barring the use of forced labour had been issued as early as August, warning regional governors they would be sacked for failing to comply with it. Regional governments have apparently been ordered to hire unemployed locals instead.
The World Bank has in the past provided continuous support for Uzbek agricultural projects despite being urged by rights groups to suspend its loans. HRW has said that it remains necessary for the international financial institution to suspend all agricultural sector loans to Uzbekistan. The terms of the bank’s latest $500mn loan have been violated by the failure to bring forced labour in the Central Asian country to an end, it concluded.
The European Parliament approved a textiles trade deal with Uzbekistan last December, ending a five-year stalemate after commending the country for its efforts to eradicate child labour. The deal overlapped with the coming to power of President Mirziyoyev following the death of Islam Karimov, who had ruled for 27 years, in September.
As one of the world’s largest cotton producers, Uzbekistan boasts an ample supply of fibre for textile manufacturing. Uzbekistan produces over 3m tonnes of raw cotton and 1m tonnes of cotton fibre annually. About 200 global apparel brands have signed a compact not to use Uzbek cotton in their supply chains.
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