This week, the Cotton Campaign submitted the following letter to Mr. Elmar Brok, Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament, for his meeting with Mr. Abdulaziz Kamilov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Uzbekistan:
Dear Chairman Brok,
In advance of your meeting with Mr. Abdulaziz Kamilov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Uzbekistan, we write to encourage you to urge the Uzbek government to sincerely address the serious, systematic and ongoing human rights violations of the Uzbek people, including state-orchestrated forced labour of children and adults.
In 2013, the Uzbek government once again forced farmers to produce state-imposed, annual quotas of cotton and operated an established infrastructure to coercively mobilise over a million children and adults to pick cotton and prepare the cotton fields. Authorities forced children, mostly aged 16 to 17 years but some as young as 10 years old, to work in the cotton fields under threat of punishment, including expulsion from school, verbal abuse and physical abuse. Annually, adults, including teachers, doctors, nurses, civil servant and private sector employees, are forced to pick cotton under threat of dismissal from work, and the loss of salary, pensions and welfare benefits. Authorities harass, intimidate and detain Uzbek human rights defenders who attempt to monitor the harvest. Public officials also demand and accept payments in return for exemptions from forced labour, fostering corruption throughout the country. The Uzbek government system of forced labour violates national law, International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions No. 105 (Abolition of Forced Labour), and in the case of children, No. 182 (Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour).
During the 2013 cotton harvest, after a decade of global pressure, the Uzbek government also reduced the number of children under the age of 16 forced to pick cotton and accepted monitoring by the ILO. In taking these steps Tashkent demonstrated its ability to unilaterally change practices. Yet its state-orchestrated forced labour system remains fundamentally unaltered. Whether Tashkent goes on to change the broader forced labour system depends on the continuation of global pressure, including by the EU, and ongoing ILO monitoring and technical assistance to support the application of fundamental labour conventions.
Unfortunately, limitations under which the ILO monitored the 2013 harvest included the restriction of its mandate to ILO Convention No. 182, presence of representatives of the government with all monitoring teams, lack of participation by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and International Organisation of Employers (IOE), lack of participation by Uzbek civil society, and efforts by the Uzbek government to undermine monitoring, including moving people around to avoid inspections and instructing people to lie to monitors. Despite the limitations under which the ILO observed the harvest, their mission reported the use of child labour, emphasized concerns about the use of forced labour for the cotton harvest, and recommended that the government take action to implement all fundamental labour conventions.
The labour rights violations in the cotton sector occur in the context of a grave human rights situation in Uzbekistan. Tashkent has steadfastly refused an investigation of the Andijan massacre of 2005, in which security forces shot into crowds of mostly peaceful protestors in that city, killing hundreds. Under the administration of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, torture is systematic in police custody and prisons, where dozens of human rights defenders and journalists are held on politically-motivated charges along with thousands of people locked up for practicing their religion. The government tolerates no freedom of speech or assembly and has denied access to all eleven UN special human rights monitors who have requested invitations. In 2013, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had to stop visiting prisoners in Uzbekistan, because the government refuses to cooperate with standard ICRC procedures.
The European Parliament has expressed concern for forced labour in the Uzbek cotton sector. In December 2011, the Parliament voted 603 to 8 not to extend the EU-Uzbekistan Partnership and Cooperation Agreement’ to include the trade in cotton and other textiles from Uzbekistan in December 2012. In March 2013, the Parliament issued the resolution on sustainability in the global cotton value chain in March 2013, stating that it “strongly condemns the use of child and forced labour on cotton fields” and calls on Uzbekistan to create an enabling environment for independent trade unions, farmers organizations and NGOs to represent their interests.
The EU’s approach to ending this practice by encouraging the diversification of income opportunities through development and poverty reduction schemes raises serious concerns. Forced labour in the cotton fields in Uzbekistan is not a result of poverty; it underpins the state-order system of production. This system contributes to corruption at all levels of government. Bilateral programmes in Uzbekistan must be conditioned on the Uzbek government’s legal accountability and address the root causes of on-going human rights abuses. Otherwise, forced labour and other human rights concerns will continue to impede opportunities for the people of Uzbekistan.
We urge you to build on the European Parliament’s leadership by firmly calling on the Uzbek government to grant access to UN monitors who have been unable to visit due to the government’s refusal, implement recommendations by UN treaty bodies and special procedures, and meet the following benchmarks prior to the 2014 cotton harvest:
The Cotton Campaign
Australian Council of Trade Unions
CHE/Trinity Health Inc
Environmental Justice Foundation
European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights
The Eurasian Transition Group, e.V.
Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility
International Association Human Rights "Fiery Hearts Club"
International Labor Rights Forum
International Partnership for Human Rights
Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union
Slavery Links Australia
Sisters of Charity, BVM
Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia
The Sunshine Coalition
Textile Clothing & Footwear Union of Australia