Forced Uzbek cotton labour persists: NGOs
Despite a promise of reform, forced labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields remains widespread, according to the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF).
The body has long monitored the Uzbek cotton sector and it reported this month that, despite reforms since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev took power in late 2016, citizens are still being forced to work in the harvest.
Although medics and teachers had not been forced to pick cotton in the previous two harvests, the authorities increasingly sent state-owned company staff to work in the fields in August.
In acknowledgement of Mirziyoyev’s reforms, the US has recently removed Uzbek cotton from its list of products that are produced with forced child labour.
The list includes products that the US has “a reasonable basis to believe might have been mined, produced, or manufactured by forced or indentured child labour”.
A review by the departments of Labour, State and Homeland Security said it had “determined that the use of forced child labour in the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan has been significantly reduced to isolated incidents”.
However, Uzbek cotton remains on the Labour Department’s list of goods produced with forced or child labour, rather than the narrow category of “forced child labour”.
Tashkent has made efforts to reduce forced labour by introducing higher wages for cotton pickers and awareness campaigns about the legal consequences of using illegal labour.
But Human Rights Watch (HRW) said: “If forced labour is to be eliminated, the government has to end the centrally mandated production quotas that fuel the practice.”
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) and UGF both reported forced labour in last year’s harvest.
The ILO said about 170,000 adults were forced to work by municipal governments, rather than at the central level, as in the past.
The UGF said the Tashkent authorities were still forcibly transferring labour to regions with shortages.
“The central government has failed to reign in abusive practices and the structures that sustain them, indicating just how deeply rooted and persistent the practice is,” HRW said.
The New York-based NGO also said there was a lack of freedom for voluntary labourers to join independent trade unions.
In May last year, an Uzbek decree aimed at completely ending forced labour.
Mirziyoyev used his UN General Assembly speech in September 2017 to address the issue of forced labour in Uzbekistan.
The architectural riches of Uzbekistan contrast with the poverty that many contemporary Uzbeks endure. Picture credit: Eurasia Times