MEPs to endorse slave labour: HRW

MEPs to endorse slave labour: HRW

A Soviet propaganda poster urging peasants to speed up cotton production in Russian and Uzbek. Cotton production in Uzbekistan has long been politically controlled. Source: Wikimedia

More than a million Uzbeks are forced to work during the cotton harvest in the Central Asian state’s fields, Human Rights Watch has warned. 

Medical staff are pulled from hospitals, students driven out of universities in what the New York-based group calls an annual outrage, while Uzbekistan’s elites become rich on the cotton trade.

HRW now claims the European Parliament has given the system its stamp of approval.

MEPs voted this week on whether to lift a hold on a Textile Protocol with Uzbekistan, which it blocked in 2011 over concerns about the government’s systematic use of forced labour. If formally adopted, the deal would lower tariffs on Uzbekistan’s cotton, allowing it to reach EU markets more easily.

“The economic impact of such a deal is fairly marginal, annual trade between the EU and Uzbekistan constituted only €1.6 billion in 2013,” HRW said. “But approving the Protocol could undermine efforts to end forced labour, led by Uzbek activists, alongside their allies in the trade union and human rights movements, and even the apparel industry.”

It has been argued that Tashkent has made improvements since 2013, when the number of children being forced into the fields was reduced and the International Labour Organisation was allowed into Uzbekistan. But this meant the cotton trade had relied more heavily on adult forced labour, with more than a million adults being made to pick cotton this year, according to observers in Uzbekistan.

HRW announced: “The first recruits for the harvest are teachers, doctors, nurses and other civil servants. Their absence from work each autumn disrupts the availability of medical care, education and other essential services.

“Seeking to stem international criticism, the Uzbek government has cleverly sought to depict all those in the fields as mere ‘volunteers’.”

Labourers were being forced to sign statements of “voluntary” participation, the NGO said. Anyone refusing to participate faced losing their job or expulsion from university. Activists or journalists attempting to monitor the cotton trade were often harassed, detained and even beaten by the authorities, HRW said.

It said the decision to enslave a large chunk of the workforce was taken by the central government.

A Chinaz district prosecutor referred to a July decree from the Tashkent cabinet regarding this autumn’s cotton harvest saying a decision was “taken to deploy all staff to pick cotton. Based on this decision all staff of the district departments and medical establishments have been involved in picking cotton”.

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