A delegation of the Cotton Campaign visited Uzbekistan from January 28 to February 5, 2020, to participate in discussions with the government of Uzbekistan, human and labor rights activists, representatives of the International Labour Organization, World Bank and International Finance Corporation, embassies, and other stakeholders. The discussions were constructive, useful, and timely in refining our understanding of the treatment of cotton pickers during the 2019 harvest, and of the government’s actions towards its committed reforms. These discussions are contributing toward our assessment of progress towards the three core objectives set forth in the Cotton Campaign’s Roadmap of Reforms: Ending Systemic Forced Labor, Enacting Structural Reforms, and Empowering Civil Society.
We are evaluating various factors as we consider the status of the Uzbek Cotton Pledge and in preparation for our deliberations at the Cotton Campaign's annual meeting in Washington, DC the week of March 23rd. The combination of the observations highlighted in the Uzbek-German Forum’s Preliminary Findings and the numbers of estimated forced laborers acknowledged in the ILO’s recent Third Party Monitoring Report point to continuing challenges amidst the progress that is apparent but must be continually addressed if reform is to succeed.
Our decision will be made in order to advance the complementary objectives of the Roadmap—and in turn encourage responsible sourcing and investment that supports labor and human rights in a transitioning Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan’s 2018 cotton harvest, which concluded in all regions of the country the first week of December, showcased the enormous challenges in uprooting the country’s deeply entrenched forced labor system. Driven by a commitment to reform at the highest levels of the government, there is a significant transition underway, which is reflected in some encouraging signs of progress. But despite serious efforts by the central government to curtail forced labor for some citizens, key root causes remained in place, driving officials at both the local and national level to force citizens into the fields again.
The Cotton Campaign and coalition partners’ preliminary 2018 harvest findings show that large-scale, government-implemented forced labor occurred during the recent cotton picking season, even as the government increased commitments to ending the practice.
“Our monitors found that regional and district officials ordered state organizations and businesses to send employees or pay for replacement workers to pick cotton and sign statements stating they were working voluntarily,” said Umida Niyazova, Director of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF). “Some of the forced pickers were from republic-level law enforcement and military agencies, which could not have sent employees without authorization from the central government.”
For example, UGF monitors obtained an order, signed by the deputy governor of Namangan region, directing 82 state organizations including banks, utility companies, the youth union, tax authority, department of tourism, and regional labor union, to deliver 760 metric tons of cotton by November 27, 2018. The order specifies the number of employees of each organization and the amount of cotton each organization should deliver.
UGF’s independent monitors also obtained documents that indicate approximately 30 percent of employees of state-owned enterprises were assigned to picking brigades, often meaning days away from their families and their chosen field of work. The Uzbek Metallurgical Plant ordered the mobilization of 3,200 workers to pick cotton, 36 percent of the plant’s workforce, according to a document obtained by UGF, dated September 19, 2018. Government officials also turned to the military to meet quotas, mobilizing soldiers in several districts to pick cotton, especially late in the season when voluntary picking had dropped off. For example, in Akaltynsky district of Syrdarya region, 10,000 soldiers picked cotton until December 5, 2018.
During the 2018 cotton harvest, a team of independent monitors found:
Health and education employees were not mobilized en masse, though some were forced to work at the end of the harvest. Nonetheless, most major government enterprises and agencies, including factories, grain mills, utility companies, banks, law enforcement, and government services, required their employees to pick cotton or pay for replacement pickers from the beginning of the harvest. Thousands of these employees were sent to supply pickers to low population regions where they lived in field camps, public buildings, or train cars.
“Although we have seen encouraging areas of progress in this harvest, it is premature to declare success in dismantling a system of production relying on massive forced labor that has been in place for decades,” said Bennett Freeman, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor and Co-founder of the Cotton Campaign. “There is indeed a significant transition underway, but it will take several more years to end systemic forced labor and to implement critical structural reforms, such as ending the quota system, establishing incentives for employing only voluntary labor and enforcing accountability for officials who use forced labor. We look to the Uzbek government and its international partners to sustain and accelerate the hard work that will be necessary to achieve historic reform.”
The Cotton Campaign has long raised concerns that using public sector employees for forced labor has disastrous consequences for public services. In November, Ozodlik reported that seven children received the wrong vaccination with devastating health consequences, because the nurse in charge was picking cotton.
“Uzbekistan should be evaluated by actual change on the ground but forced labor will not be eliminated as long as the quota system for both cotton and field labor remains intact,” said Judy Gearhart, Executive Director of the International Labor Rights Forum, a founding member of the Cotton Campaign. “Currently Uzbekistan’s agricultural sector lacks a system of normal labor relations. There were cases in 2018 harvest when farmers were physically abused for failure to deliver on government-ordered production quotas.”
Bus accident in Turkmenistan. Passengers- school & kindergarten teachers- mobilized by authorities to pick cotton are hospitalized, 3 in critical condition. Annual cotton harvest begins with casualties as Turkmen authorities command victims to keep quiet. Reports by Alternative Turkmenistan News: https://habartm.org/archives/9431 and
RFE/RL's Turkmen Service: https://rus.azathabar.com/a/29466202.html
In Uzbekistan, traders of Tashkent’s bazaars tells Radio Ozodlik that they had been asked to collect $200 to sponsor the upcoming cotton picking campaign:
Uzbekistan should eliminate the practice of requesting fees for replacement pickers or contributions from businesses and entrepreneurs to support the harvest.
In late April of 2017, spring field work began in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan. Hundreds of thousands of public sector employees throughout the country are currently being mobilized to help local farmers in the cotton sector. This year the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights is again monitoring the involvement of government employees in the agricultural field work. The monitoring is being carried out in six of the 13 regions of Uzbekistan.
"According to our preliminary data, forced mobilization for agricultural work affects almost every state-owned organization in the country (except large cities). Employees work on the fields in turns, usually two to three times per week, or pay money to hire someone else in their place" - reported by Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights.
In addition to the weeding of the cotton fields, these workers are sent to plant pumpkins and corn along the surrounding areas of grain and cotton fields. In some areas they are involved in the cultivation of silkworm caterpillars for the state.
"Mobilized employees work for free, often pay for their own travel expenses, and have to bring their own food to the fields" - observed by Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights.
The situation of Uzbek farmers who are being deprived of their economic freedom remains deplorable. They are still denied the right to choose freely what to plant on their land and how to use their products. Instead, they are forced to plant cotton which is not profitable for them.
In April and May 2017, in addition to the systematic mobilization of the Uzbek population for agricultural work, employees of the educational and medical sector are involved in other public services, mainly the cleaning of streets, the planting of flowers and the cleaning of roadside irrigation ditches.
Report and translation provided by Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights
Dilarom Juraev was twenty-eight years old and six months pregnant when she began participating in this year's cotton harvest. She was told that unless she picked cotton, she would not be given the standard Uzbek child allowance once the baby was born. Just hours into the first day, she lost her baby after beginning to miscarry in the fields.
“In the morning we were taken to the fields by. We started to pick cotton, and after a short time Dilarom was in labor. Hearing this, the chiefs started panicking. Consequently the chairman brought Dilarom to the district hospital with his car. According to what we heard, Dilarom’s conditions were serious, and the doctors sent her to the regional hospital. When they arrived at the hospital the woman has had a miscarriage. They said it was a boy. After hearing what had happened, her mother-in-law cried a lot. The woman said that she was prepared for celebrating beshik-toyu (celebration devoted to the birth of the child – Ed.). Dilarom left the hospital on the same day, and the body of the baby was brought home. The woman has already been discharged from the hospital, and she is at home now” – said one of the residents of the Zarbdar district in an unrecorded interview with our radio reporter.
Dilarom lost her child on the very first day she picked cotton during the harvest. Although officials continue to claim that her participation was voluntary, reports from community members and those in the vicinity of the incident contradict those claims.
“Near Ismail gathered local police officers and representatives of the Khokimiyat. In total there were five of them. They said that every family had to send at least one person to the fields. They said it was an order from “above” and that everyone was obliged to follow it. These officials told mothers receiving child benefits that they would not receive any more money if they did not pick cotton” – told one source living in the Mustaqillik.
Uzbek authorities have denied responsibility for this tragedy, and paid a personal visit to Dilarom's family to pressure them to hold the government blameless as well. Though authorities in the region have suspended sending pregnant women to the fields since this incident, we are still receiving numerous reports from across the country that young mothers are threatened with losing their child benefits if they do not pick their cotton quota.
Information and Translated provided by Uzbek-German Forum
In the Bukhara region of Uzbekistan, citizens who live abroad and have come back to renew their passports may find themselves trapped in the country. In a report given to us by the Uzbek-German Forum, one Uzbek citizen recounted being told he had to pick cotton in the fields before being issued a new passport.
“My brother came back to Uzbekistan to change his outdated passport. So he paid a visit to our local police office that is located on A. Somiy Street (5th micro-district, Bukhara).
Information and translation provided by Uzbek-German Forum
In the first post of our series following updates from the 2016 cotton harvest, From the Fields, we want to relay a devastating story that came from an independent monitor yesterday. Despite repeatedly promising to stop this practice, the Uzbek government is indeed forcing teachers into the fields to pick cotton. The text below details a conversation between an Uzbek citizen and an independent monitor. The woman, a kindergarten teacher, was fired after refusing to abandon her children alone to pick cotton. She was unable to pay the fine for not working in the fields, which is roughly equal to a month’s salary.
“It was decided by lot that I had to go (to harvest cotton) in the first shift. My husband also had to go in this shift. Our kids are not too small anymore, but we still cannot leave them alone yet. Fortunately, at least they do not send first-year college and high school students.
This is a clear illustration of the situation that many Uzbek citizens are facing as the first stage of the cotton harvest gets underway. They are put in impossible situations, then fired from gainful employment when they are unable to surmount tremendous obstacles. This process of forced labor must be stopped. The woman who bravely offered this testimony was offered legal help in getting her job back, but declined out of fear of retaliation against her husband.
Information and translation provided by Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights.
This article was originally published by the Solidarity Center on its website here.
By Tula O'Connell
The World Bank must convey to the Uzbek government that attacks against independent monitors assessing the extent of forced labor in the country’s cotton harvest will not be tolerated. The World Bank must also outline consequences should the attacks continue, according to the Cotton Campaign.
In a July 29 letter to key World Bank officials, the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of dozens of labor and human rights groups that includes the Solidarity Center, wrote:
“The World Bank should take all reasonable measures to create an enabling environment for independent actors to monitor projects that it finances. We have not seen the bank take such measures in Uzbekistan.”
The World Bank Group is providing more than $500 million in financing to the government of Uzbekistan for its agriculture sector and additional financing to multinational companies processing forced-labor cotton in Uzbekistan.
1 Million in Forced Labor During Cotton Harvests
During each fall cotton harvest, the Uzbekistan government forces more than 1 million teachers, nurses and others to pick cotton for weeks, deeply cutting services at schools and medical facilities. Last fall, the government went to extreme measures—including jailing and physically abusing those independently monitoring the process—to cover up its actions.
“The Uzbek government’s repression of human rights monitors has made it impossible for essential mitigation measures of monitoring and grievance redress to function,” according to the coalition, which sent the letter in advance of an early August roundtable meeting of the World Bank, the Uzbek government, the International Labor Organization and diplomatic missions in Uzbekistan.
The coalition also is requesting that the World Bank “obtain an enforceable commitment from the Uzbek government to allow independent journalists, organizations and individuals to have access to all World Bank project-affected areas and to monitor, document and report about forced labor without interference or fear of reprisal.”
Uzbekistan Downgraded in US Trafficking in Persons ReportIn June, an Uzbek victim of forced labor in cotton production and three human rights defenders filed a complaint against the World Bank’s private lending arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC). They seek an investigation into forced labor connected to a $40 million loan to Indorama Kokand Textile, which operates in Uzbekistan. The complaint presents evidence that the loan to expand the company’s cotton manufacturing facilities in Uzbekistan allows it to profit from forced labor and sell illicit goods.
Also in June, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, where forced labor in cotton harvests also is rampant, were downgraded to the lowest ranking in the U.S. State Department’s 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report.
This article was originally published on the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights website here.
“When people’s rights to assemble and associate are restricted — whether by an environment of fear or intimidation, or by laws that cut off funding of independent groups — we stand no chance of designing development programs that actually meet the needs of poor communities.”
These words, recently expressed by Mr Maina Kiai, U.N. special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, are of great value for me and my colleagues. We are the Uzbek activists documenting and reporting to the World Bank the labour rights situation in its project areas in Uzbekistan. My colleagues in the country are risking their lives to secure the fundamental human rights of our people. In response to violent state retaliation against them, the World Bank refuses to hold its member and client, the Uzbek government, accountable.
In June 2014, the World Bank approved a loan of $ 410,3 million for the “modernization of agriculture” of Uzbekistan, pledging to prevent the use of forced labour in the Bank’s lending areas.
The Bank’s decision followed a formal complaint from Uzbek citizens and finding by the World Bank Inspection Panel of a link between forced labour and Bank loans to the Uzbek government for agriculture. The Bank committed to (1) suspend loans if child or forced labor is found in World Bank-financed project sites; (2) establish third-party monitoring of labor practices; and (3) establish a grievance redress mechanism. Then it reneged on each commitment. The Bank refused to suspend the loans despite credible documentation that State-led, systematic, and widespread forced labour continued to exist at World Bank-finance project sites. The Bank established a joint ILO-Uzbek government monitoring mission after it learned the government would not accept fully independent third-party monitoring. The Bank did not establish a mechanism that would provide redress to victims of forced labour. Instead, the Bank established a “feedback mechanism” comprised of hotlines that could only be used to inform authorities of crimes, not guarantee victims access to effective remedies, and users of the hotlines were harassed and intimidated in retaliation for reporting.
While embracing the World Bank’s loans and joint monitoring with the ILO, the Uzbek government continued systematic forced labour and severely retaliated against citizens who reported forced labour. Officials arrested, beat and filed charges of “disorderly conduct” against Dmitry Tikhonov, the same day his home office was destroyed by arson, eventually forcing him to flee the country. Officials arrested Uktam Pardaev, confiscated his computer and files used for monitoring, then detained him for two months and subjected him to beatings, and released him on probation and the condition he would no longer report human rights concerns. Officials arrested Ms. Urlaeva five times, subjected her to body-cavity searches twice, and forcibly detained her in a psychological hospital. In each case officials harassed the human rights defenders in retaliation for their reporting of forced labor in the cotton sector.
Neither the World Bank nor the ILO has publicly condemned the violence against the human rights monitors.
Photo: Human Rights Defender Dmitry Tikhonov in his burned out house.
As UN Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai further outlines:
“When governments or private developers try to restrict participation in development projects or attack human rights activists, development banks must react strongly. They need to investigate the issue, publicly condemn the actors involved, use diplomacy, and take other necessary measures to ensure that the banks’ existing and future funding is not contributing to human rights abuses. In some cases, it may be necessary to cut off funding until improvements are made”.
The Uzbek government’s use of forced labour and repression continues this year. Officials have threatened and penalized farmers for not fulfilling production quotas for cotton and wheat, including a case in which officials harvested a farmer’s wheat and seized it while police held the farmer in an armoured vehicle. In April, the head of the Khazarasp district in the Khorezm region Uktam Kurbanov illegally seized a farmer’s land in retaliation for letting two Uzbek human rights activists, Elena Urlaeva and Malokhat Eshonkulova, stay at his place. Officials forced students and education and health-care workers to weed cotton fields. Since a presidential decree establishing a state-order system of production for horticulture, farmers and citizens have reported officials ordering them work to produce horticulture crops, raising concern about an extension of systematic and state-orchestrated coercion.
UGF Questions and the World Bank Answers
In June of this year, Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights sent request for an interview to the World Bank country manager for Uzbekistan Mr. Junghun Cho.
Reading the answers from the World Bank it is difficult to conclude how seriously the Bank takes its commitment to not tolerate the use of forced labour in its lending areas.
Here are the questions that UGF asked the Bank:
The World Bank allocates millions of US Dollars in loans to the agriculture sector of Uzbekistan which, according to our data, is based on the control and coercion of farmers to plant products by the order of the state. The World Bank’s new strategy includes a “modernization of the cotton sector” in Uzbekistan. Could you please explain whether the World Bank has developed clear benchmarks as well as a concrete time frame for the strategy which would induce the Uzbek government to take real steps to reform the country’s agriculture?
Our team of monitors has documented the Uzbek government’s annual use of forced labour to produce cotton for seven years now. 2015 was the first year in which the government had signed agreements with the World Bank determining that the use of forced labour in areas of active World Bank-funded projects in the agriculture and education sectors would be a reason for suspending the Bank’s loans. Our monitors reported evidence of officials forcing farmers to grow cotton and more than one million people to pick cotton throughout the country, including in World Bank project areas. Has the World Bank suspended its loans to the government? If not, why not, and what actions is the Bank intending to take to hold the government accountable for its commitments?
At the same time, the Uzbek government denies that it is forcing people to weed and pick cotton. Will the World Bank work towards the elimination of forced labour in the Uzbek cotton sector and develop a specific plan of cooperation with the government in this regard?
If the Uzbek government continues to use forced labour in the cotton sector on a massive scale, which steps will the World Bank take?
As we have reported to you, our independent monitors have faced unprecedented harassment since the World Bank has increased its investments in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector. What is the World Bank doing to create a safe space for independent groups and individuals monitoring the working conditions in areas benefiting from World Bank projects?
Instead of answering the questions, the World Bank replied:
“Thank you for your letter. We respect and share your concerns regarding the risks of forced labor in the cotton sector in Uzbekistan. We recognize and appreciate the extensive efforts made by international and local NGOs and CSOs to date.”
“As you rightly noted, the World Bank Group has been a long term development partner of Uzbekistan, providing advice and financial support to improve the country’s economic and social development and financial management. The new World Bank Country Partnership Framework for 2016-2020 for Uzbekistan focuses on three priority areas: private sector growth, agriculture competitiveness and cotton sector modernization, and improved public service delivery. To support private sector growth, the World Bank Group will help improve the business environment and support private sector investments in the country. To encourage agriculture competitiveness and cotton sector modernization, the Bank Group will support changes towards a more remunerative, market-based, job intensive agriculture system, along with more sustainable management of land and water resources. To enhance public service delivery, we will support improved access to water supply and sanitation, increased quality of education and health services, as well as better transport services and urban development.”
“More specifically, the World Bank Group considers the reform of the agriculture sector and modernization of cotton production in Uzbekistan to be critically important for the overall grown in the country and improvement of people’s lives. Agriculture constitutes the main source of employment for the rural population. With scarce land and water assets, a growing population, climate change risks and volative export markets, modernization of the agriculture sector is vital to improve its performance and support its integration into a more open and competitive economy, while creating much needed jobs and contributing to shared prosperity.”
“In this respect, recent steps taken by the Uzbek authorities are indicative of a broader shift in agriculture, responding to both the challenges of the global economy and new market opportunities for horticulture and livestock products for neighboring markets. To advance this agenda, the Government issued a resolution to reduce areas under cotton production by 170,000 ha by 2020, including a significant decrease in the driest and least productive areas such as the Jizzakh and Syrdarya regions. The Government issued documents aimed to support organized marketing and exports of about one-fifth of horticulture produce in the coming year. We understand that the Government of Uzbekistan is also planning for a broader development of the horticulture sector through investments in storage, processing, logistics, and quality assurance infrastructure and capacities.”
“On the policy level, the World Bank is assisting the country in framing a vision for market-led agricultural transformation, which is environmentally and socially sustainable, as well as economically and financially viable. We are working together with the Ministry of Agriculture to establish a sound diagnostic of Uzbekistan’s agricultural potential and constraints. This means identifying the country’s comparative advantages and opportunities on local, regional and international markets, as well as analyzing the constraints and bottlenecks that should be tackled to transform the sector and improve its performance.”
“On the ground, the World Bank is already actively engaged in supporting a diversification agenda. More than 550 concessional loans were provided to the local farmers for the development of horticulture activities, such as orchards, vineyards and greenhouses. Agro-entrepreneurs are supported in the development of storage, packing and processing facilities. Under a World Bank-funded project in Ferghana Valley, the recent rehabilitation of more than 1,300 km of irrigation and drainage canals is now providing more reliable water supply to farmers who, in turn, are able to increase productivity and diversify to higher-value and less water intensive crops. Recently collected data shows that the smallholder farmers have been able to increase orchard productivity by 68% and to diversify into other legume and vegetable crops by 15%.
“As we have stated previously, we are seriously concerned about the reports that some civil society activists in Uzbekistan have been detained while monitoring the use of labor in the cotton harvest. When allegations of reprisals are brought to our attention, we work with appropriate parties, within the scope of our mandate, to address them. We will continue monitoring the situation closely together with the ILO and other relevant UN bodies and will convey our concerns regarding the alleged harassment of independent monitors to the Government of Uzbekistan.”
“Finally, we would like to reiterate, the World Bank does not condone forced labor in any form and takes seriously the reports of such practices in the cotton production system in Uzbekistan. We believe that the most effective way to address the issue in Uzbekistan is to use a holistic approach through continuous country dialogue and collaboration with international agencies and donors, NGO and CSO community and through sector analytic work and policy dialogue, and specific project-level interventions. One of our main objectives is to help achieve a modernization of the agriculture sector that creates more jobs and higher income along with liberalization of the system of cotton production so that both the pressure for and risks of forced labor in this sector are reduced as far as possible in Uzbekistan”
Notably, the World Bank once again refuses to acknowledge the Uzbek government’s use of forced labour and its very real and not simply “alleged” retaliation against our monitors. Astonishingly after articulating a broad vision of a new Uzbek economy, the Bank’s goal concerning state-orchestrated forced labor is “reduced as far as possible.”
The Bank should consult with Mr. Kai and recognize that the repression by the Uzbek government removes all chance of development that meets the needs of the Uzbek people. The Bank’s members should recognize that its loans will continue to be linked to forced labor in Uzbekistan until the government ceases retaliating against citizens who report such violations of the law and until the government is held accountable for its use of coercion to mobilize labor for agriculture production, cotton and otherwise. Monitoring and complaint hotlines don’t work without protection for the people who report violations, and reform doesn’t happen if the government knows it will receive funding despite breaking its commitments.
 Maina Kiai, It’s Time for Development Bank to start Listening, Foreign Policy, 19 July 2016, available at: http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/07/19/its-time-for-development-banks-to-start-listening-maina-kiai/