Uzbek president moves to end forced cotton labour
Uzbekistan is currently the world’s 10th biggest producer of cotton, but it aims to develop valued-added exports, such as textiles.
The ending of strictly enforced quotas for the production and sale of cotton from this year would leave farmers who rent land from the state free to cultivate alternative, more lucrative crops.
The quota system led to a system of forced labour which saw students, government employees and children forced into the fields to harvest cotton for little or no pay.
Lynn Schweizfurz of the Uzbek-German Forum on Human Rights welcomed the abolition of the state quota system, saying it would allow farmers more freedom to plant other crops.
But she also warned the Uzbek system of “clusters” – which are aimed at making agriculture more efficient and modern – could hurt farmers.
Under the veteran dictator, Islam Karimov, who died in 2016, more than 2 million Uzbeks were forced to work in the annual harvest. Uzbeks often called cotton “white gold”.
During the Soviet era, central planners ordered wide-scale cotton cultivation, despite Uzbekistan’s arid climate.
The order also removes obligations on farmers to take part in cotton production and allow them to plant other crops.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) reported this month that the systemic use of child and forced labour in the cotton sector had ended.
It added, however, that 102,000 forced labourers were recorded as taking part in the 2019 harvest. This was 40 per cent lower than in 2018.
Uzbek cotton has faced boycotts from textile producers and the US and European Union.
In 2007, various rights groups founded the Cotton Campaign, which aims to end rights violations in the Uzbek cotton fields.
The Cotton Campaign is due to meet at the end of this month to decide whether to end the boycott.
The involuntary recruitment of labourers from state institutions, agencies and enterprises still occurs at a municipal level, the ILO reported.
In 2019 the number of labour inspectors doubled from 200 to 400 and 1,282 forced labour cases were “investigated” by the Uzbek authorities.
Efforts to stamp out forced and child labor have won praise from the US, which had previously imposed restrictions on Uzbek cotton.
Uzbek children have been forced into labour for years. Picture credit: Eurasia Times