When it comes to human rights and Uzbekistan, the news is usually bad.
The U.S. State Department’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report, published on July 27, does not buck that trend, but it is notable in recognizing what it says are efforts by Tashkent to reduce forced child labor.
That has prompted the American government to promote Uzbekistan from Tier 3 to Tier 2 on its watch list — a move that has stunned the Cotton Campaign advocacy group.
Cotton Campaign, which has as it aim the end of forced child and adult labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry, says the upgrade lets Tashkent off the hook.
“The Uzbek government continues to operate one of the largest state-orchestrated systems of forced labor in the world,” the group said in a statement.
Nadejda Ataeva, president at the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, said in comments carried on the Cotton Campaign statement, that the United States “has effectively sent a message to Uzbek authorities that forced labor of millions of its citizens is cost-free.”
The U.S. State Department paints a grim picture, but offers some ostensibly consolatory remarks in passing:
“Government-compelled forced labor of adults remains endemic during the annual cotton harvest. In 2014, despite a central government-decree banning all participation of those under age 18 in the cotton harvest, local officials mobilized children in some districts. In addition, across much of the country, third-year college and lyceum students continued to be mobilized, an unknown number of whom were not yet 18 years old.”
Few sections of the population are spared. Government office workers, university staff, students, medical workers, military personnel and private sector employees are alike press-ganged into work in the fields.
“State employees, including teachers and hospital workers, are bound by a clause in their collective bargaining agreement to be transferred elsewhere for up to 60 days each year and university students sign contracts requiring their participation in the harvest as a condition of school enrollment,” the State Department report said.
Cotton Campaign acknowledged that limited changes have taken place, but expressed astonishment at the U.S. government’s pat on the back given the scale of the problem is still grievous.
The Uzbek “government mobilized more than a million of its own citizens to harvest cotton in 2014 and began this year by mobilizing thousands more to prepare the fields for the upcoming harvest,” the group said in a letter address to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
As the Trafficking in Persons Report notes, reduced reliance on children has resulted in the increasing forcible mobilization of the adult population. Refusal to work puts holdouts at risk of losing their jobs or social benefits, the U.S. State Department report said. Private companies are pressured into enlisting their employees on pain of being subjected to punitive inspections.
Uzbekistan is attempting to display willingness to open itself up to scrutiny. The government has agreed to allow the International Labor Organization to monitor harvests across 60 percent of its cotton producing territory in 2015-2017 to ensure compliance with international standards. The ILO did not have funding to monitor the 2014 harvest, so that job fell instead to the government, trade union representatives and nongovernment organizations. Their findings suggested the prevalence of children picking cotton had fallen in 2014, from 41 compared to 53 the year before, but given the source of that information, skepticism has to be exercised. And even those observations suggest that some taskmasters instruct children to avoid work on a particular day to evade detection.
Cotton accounts for a sizable chunk of Uzbekistan’s economy and has done so since Soviet times, when the rivers feeding the now doomed Aral Sea were amply tapped to water the thirsty crop. A 2014 report by Open Society Foundations on Uzbekistan’s cotton industries estimated that the sector accounted for around 25% of the country’s gross domestic product. Although Uzbekistan’s share of the global cotton market has plummeted since Soviet times, it still remains the world’s sixth-largest producer and fourth-largest exporter of cotton.
The sector has undergone exhaustive reform on the face of things. State-owned farms have been privatized, and yet ownership of agricultural land is still with the government. Control of the production process — from plantation to setting prices and marketing — also remains firmly in government hands.
Changes have been effected primarily in output. The industry has tried to adapt to growing demand for refined goods instead of the raw material that Uzbekistan previously churned out.
Activists raising awareness of labor conditions in Uzbekistan regularly seek to remind consumers in the West that much of the cotton picked there ends up in clothes stores in their local malls, although with little evident result. The main buyers of Uzbek cotton include China and Bangladesh, where huge amount of cheap clothing is produced daily. Again, economy in those countries’ manufacturing sectors is often achieved through employment conditions akin to slave labor.
Given how lucrative the crop remains for Uzbekistan, incentives for not deploying forced labor remain sparse for a government that categorically refuses to acknowledge it has a human rights problem.
Cotton Campaign suggested in its letter to Kerry that the United States use its vote at the World Bank to block new loans to Uzbekistan’s agricultural or education sectors until the issue of forced labor is confronted. It also suggested other measures.
“We also urge U.S. officials to stress to American companies operating in Uzbekistan the importance of fulfilling their human rights due diligence responsibilities, including by declining to contribute to the cotton harvest,” the letter said.