Uzbek cotton ‘slavery’ report flawed: HRW
Uzbekistan’s struggling economy is dependent on cotton. Source: Eurasia Times
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has confirmed the scope and systematic nature of forced labour of Uzbek citizens during last year’s cotton harvest, the Cotton Campaign said. But Tashkent’s involvement in the research appeared to undermine the results and may also have led the ILO to not give sufficient weight to the evidence of abuses presented by independent Uzbek monitors, Human Rights Watch claims.
The ILO reported that the “sustainable elimination of the risk of child and forced labour remains a prominent issue” in Uzbekistan and about a third of the 2.8 million cotton pickers that the ILO estimates are involved in the autumn cotton harvest were “non-voluntary”. The figure is in line with Cotton Campaign and independent Uzbek monitors’ estimates of forced labourers.
“A warmer than usual winter, lack of water, pest problems and replanting all caused a lower than expected crop,” the US Department of Agriculture’s office in Tashkent said.
Planted area was reduced by 30,500 hectares, to 1.26 million hectares, due to a shift in Uzbek policy.
“In 2016-17, the government of Uzbekistan lowered the cotton planting area to open up fields for vegetable and fruit production, especially in areas where water is scare and cotton yields are low,” the office said.
But HRW said governmental involvement in the ILO research might have led researchers to downplay the severity of forced labour. The report used terms such as “non-voluntary” or “reluctant” to describe forced labourers, the Cotton Campaign said.
“The government of Uzbekistan uses a mass, forced mobilisation of citizens to harvest cotton every year,” said Umida Niyazova, director of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights. The NGO monitors labour and human rights through a network of activists across Uzbekistan. “People are made to harvest cotton under threat of losing their livelihoods, their education or social benefits to which they are entitled, and upon which they depend.”
But the ILO worked with Uzbek union representatives, aligned with the government, undermining the credibility of its conclusions. Forced labourers and farmers were required to answer questions in front of staff from the government-controlled Federation of Trade Unions of Uzbekistan, with no anonymity, despite the repeated use of torture for those who criticise the government.
The ILO noted in its report that “many interviewees appeared to have been briefed in advance”. Independent Uzbek monitors said bureaucrats gave training on what to tell the ILO monitors.
“The death of Uzbekistan’s autocratic leader, Islam Karimov, last August and the election to the presidency of Shavkat Mirziyoyev in December have not translated into meaningful human rights improvements on the ground,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia specialist at Human Rights Watch. “The ILO report’s findings are clearly not the whole story when human rights activists who monitor the cotton harvest suffer brutal attacks and harassment.”