Deadly Year for Forced Laborers in Uzbekistan’s Cotton Fields
Uzbekistan again mobilized over a million forced laborers, including schoolchildren, to harvest its billion-dollar cotton crop this autumn, according to a detailed November 27 report from the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of labor and rights activists. It was a deadly year.
Eleven citizens lost their lives as a result of the forced-labor system this year. The tragic losses included Tursunali Sadikov, a 63-year-old farmer who died of a heart attack after being beaten by a Department of Internal Affairs official, and Amirbek Rakhmatov, a six-year-old schoolboy who accompanied his mother to the cotton fields, napped in a trailer, and suffocated when cotton was loaded on top of him.
“It is the largest number of people who have died in a year, as far as I know,” Matt Fischer-Daly of the Cotton Campaign told the Toronto Star. “There have been tragedies but [I’ve] never seen a year with so many deaths.”
Though there were fewer young children mobilized than in years past, authorities “systematically” coerced high school students, university students, and adults into the fields, the reports says. They are part of an opaque chain of transactions that concludes with authorities buying cotton from farmers at artificially low prices and selling it abroad at a huge markup for hard currency. Researchers found that students were threatened with expulsion if they did not comply and adults told they would be fired if they refused.
In 2013, the government’s systematic use of adult forced labor affected farmers, public-sector workers, private-sector workers, unemployed citizens and those in receipt of public welfare benefits. Authorities forced pensioners, mothers and other citizens to pick cotton under threat of losing the social security support on which they depend. Under pressure from authorities in higher positions, administrators of public institutions and private business owners forced their workers to pick cotton under threat of dismissal from their job. University administrators forced students to pick cotton under threat of expulsion from university.
Authorities also went to great lengths to deceive monitors from the International Labor Organization (ILO), the report said. After years of international pressure, Tashkent allowed the ILO to monitor the harvest this year. But it “silenced Uzbek human rights monitors through arrest, imprisonment and intimidation.” Moreover, monitors did not have the kind of unfettered access they needed to write a thorough report.
Even private business owners in Tashkent region followed orders to instruct their staff to respond to questions from the ILO mission by stating that they picked cotton “voluntarily, to raise the economy of the country and work hard for our motherland.” Education officials instructed students to report being over age 18 if they are asked by foreigners while picking cotton and returned students from the cotton fields to schools in anticipation of visits by the ILO. Fergana regional authorities ordered all residents to have children pick cotton away from main highways. In advance of ILO visits to colleges, school officials sent the students back to school from the cotton fields.
As a result, says the Cotton Campaign, a preliminary ILO “Information Note” about the mission “stopped short of concluding that there is systemic use of forced child labor.”
Last week the UN Committee Against Torture blasted Uzbekistan for “systematic” human rights violations, including widespread reports of state-sanctioned torture, and reports that students “continue to be mobilized to pick cotton for up to two months each autumn and that that they live in substandard conditions, without access to safe drinking water.”
David Trilling is Eurasianet’s managing editor.