While officials may have grudgingly invited International Labor Organization representative to monitor Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest, it’s clear that authorities remain very uncomfortable with the idea of outsiders snooping around the country’s cotton fields.
An October 2 incident involving the detention of rights activists from South Korea highlights the wary attitude that local authorities show toward those who try to keep tabs on the cotton sector. Uzbekistan is notorious among rights activists for its widespread use of child- and forced-labor in the picking of the cotton crop. Tashkent is also the target of a cotton boycott undertaken by an alliance of mostly Western clothing retailers and manufacturers.
According to a statement distributed by Elena Urlaeva, a veteran Uzbek human rights advocate who was accompanying the South Korean activists at the time of the incident, two police officers took the group into custody as they were attempting to observe high school students picking cotton instead of studying. The confrontation occurred in Yangibazar, a village not far from the Uzbek capital Tashkent.
The law enforcement officers demanded to see the passports of the South Korean activists, who are affiliated with the Seoul-based non-governmental organization Advocates for Public Interest Law. The activists refused to hand over their documents and the standoff ended only after Urlaeva began making cellphone calls seeking to attract international attention to the situation. The delegation was then escorted to the local bus station and told to leave.
Researchers at New York-based Human Rights Watch assert that the Uzbek government forced over a million Uzbek citizens – including school-age children and adults – into the cotton fields to help out with the harvest in 2012. More than 20 percent of Uzbekistan’s cotton is reportedly processed at three Korean-operated Daewoo plants inside the country. The South Korean delegation that encountered trouble outside Tashkent made the trip to Uzbekistan in connection with a project aimed at investigating human rights violations by Korean corporations with foreign-based operations. The project will also examine Korean business practices in Burma/Myanmar and Bangladesh.
While the Uzbek government has reportedly stopped sending young children into the fields in response to international criticism, older students and government employees continue to be coerced into harvesting cotton.
Monitors for the International Labor Organization (ILO) have been invited to Uzbekistan to observe the harvest, tasked mainly with preventing the use of forced child labor. The incident involving the South Korean group raises questions about the extent of access and freedom of movement that Uzbek authorities are giving ILO monitors.
The ILO monitors are expected to have a preliminary report on the Uzbek harvest ready by mid-October. A final report on the ILO mission to Uzbekistan is not expected until February.