Uzbekistan’s President for the past 27 years, Islam Karimov, passed away earlier this month, potentially opening the door to a new era for Central Asia’s most populous country. Emerging leaders in Uzbekistan have an opportunity to now engage constructively with the international community and build on recent developments initiated under Karimov by ending the use of forced labor in the country’s cotton sector.
“We hope Uzbekistan’s new leaders can begin to engage independent human rights monitors and finally put a full stop to the systemic use of forced labor, which has led dozens of global brands to avoid buying Uzbek cotton,” said Judy Gearhart, Executive Director of the International Labor Rights Forum, a founding member of the global Cotton Campaign.
The old regime relied heavily on a state-run system of forced labor in the country’s cotton export sector. Positive engagement started in 2014, when the Uzbek government signed a Decent Work Country Programme with the International Labour Organization (ILO) and adopted a National Action Plan to eliminate child labor and focus on improving work and employment conditions in agriculture, including cotton.
The 2014 agreement came after seven years of advocacy by the Cotton Campaign, an international, multi-stakeholder coalition of NGOs, trade unions, apparel brands, trade associations and investors, which has advocated for reforms in Uzbekistan. It estimates that more than one million citizens’ rights are violated each year when they are forced to grow and harvest cotton.
Despite the 2014 agreement and a significant reduction in the use of child labor – though not adult forced labor – the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF) documented cases just last month of the government forcibly mobilizing public employees from the healthcare and education sectors, as well as university students, farmers and business owners to fulfill harvest quotas.
“By forcing teachers, doctors and students to work in cotton fields, the state undermines the well-being of citizens, harms public health and deteriorates the quality of education of school and university students,” said Umida Niyazova, director of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights. UGF’s most recent Chronicle of Forced Labor in Uzbekistan from September 2016 documents numerous cases of forced labor in connection with the impending cotton harvest in Uzbekistan.
Dimitry Tikhonov, whose home office was burned down in 2015 while he was documenting the continued use of forced labor in the cotton harvest, noted: “Real signs of change indicating Uzbek authorities will stop cotton crimes would be evidenced through ceasing harassment and instead beginning dialogue with independent Uzbek human rights activists, dropping bogus charges against those of us who were forced into exile and allowing unfettered access for independent monitoring during the 2016 cotton harvest.”
The Cotton Campaign urges Acting President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev to end cotton crimes as the country charts its new path, by taking the following actions:
- Enforce national laws that prohibit the use of forced and child labor in alignment with ratified ILO conventions
- Make public, high-level policy statements condemning forced labor, specifically including forced labor in the cotton sector, and making clear that all work should be voluntary and fairly compensated
- Instruct government officials at all levels and citizens that act on behalf of the government to reject coercion as mechanism for labor mobilization
- Prosecute, in conformance with international standards, government officials accused of forcing citizens to pick cotton, with penalties that reflect the severity of the crime and which serve as a deterrent for future crimes
- Allow independent journalists, human rights defenders and other individuals and organizations to document and report concerns about the use of forced labor without fear of reprisals
- Ratify and implement ILO Convention No. 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize
- Initiate a time-bound plan to reform root causes of forced labor in the agriculture sector.
“The Uzbek government has a historic opportunity to reform its cotton production system and curtail Soviet-era forced labor by taking these steps in the coming weeks and months,” said Bennett Freeman, a co-founder of the Cotton Campaign and former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.