Students dodge Uzbek cotton harvest 

Students dodge Uzbek cotton harvest 

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that Uzbekistan has recalled some students from forced labour in its notorious cotton fields, but that more political will is needed to completely end the annual process. 

The Cotton Campaign, a global workers’ rights group, said university students, medics and teachers were allowed to leave the fields, but “other workers remained there involuntarily or faced extortion to pay workers to replace them if they left”.

In some areas, returning teachers were reportedly made to pay about US$40, half of their monthly wage, to hire a replacement worker.

“It is crucial for Uzbekistan’s international partners to urge the government to allow all involuntary workers to return from the fields without penalty, including being required to pay for someone else to work in their place, and to monitor and publicly report on findings,” Umida Niyazova, director of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, was quoted saying.

In the troubled Fergana region, officials told employers that refusal to participate in the harvest would be seen as an “anti-state action” and result in a tax inspection.

Uzbekistan, one of the world’s largest cotton exporters, stopped using child labour in 2015 under international pressure, including boycott campaigns.

But the Uzbek-German Forum’s independent monitors are also still forced to work in secret because multiple detentions and physical assaults occurred during recent harvests.

On September 21, Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov ordered the release of students, teachers and medics who had been picking under threat of punishment since the harvest began in mid-September.

An August decree had banned recruiting these professional categories but forced labour had reportedly continued regardless.

“Bringing students home from the fields is a significant change and shows the importance of political will in ending forced labour,” Niyazova explained.

President Shavkat Mirziyoev, who replaced dictator Islam Karimov after his death last September, is thought to be behind the reforms.

The president addressed forced labour in his speech to the UN General Assembly on September 19.

It was the first time public acknowledgement of the issue on the international stage, after prolonged lobbying by the Cotton Campaign and other groups. Forced labour was also raised in a meeting last month with World Bank president Jim Yong Kim.

“These positive steps should not obscure the persistence of forced labour in the current cotton harvest, or the continuing threats against activists trying to monitor the situation,” HRW said.

Picking cotton is arduous. Picture credit: Wikimedia

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