On the current status of the cotton sector in Uzbekistan:
The government of Uzbekistan remains one of the only governments in the world that subjects its citizens to forced labor through the implementation of state policy. The Cotton Campaign has demanded the Uzbek government end forced labor and advocated to governments, international institutions and the private sector to use their leverage with the Uzbek government to end the practice. Despite advocacy successes, the Uzbek people continue to suffer under the state forced labor system, because the Uzbek government is addicted to its total control over unreported national income from cotton sales.
Tragic living history
The Soviet Union established a cotton monoculture in Uzbekistan to support industry in the USSR, desiccating the Aral Sea to less than 50% of its area and less than 1/3 of its volume in two decades. Since independence in 1991, the authoritarian Uzbek government of President Islam Karimov has further exploited the nation to produce cotton for the enrichment of the elite. Every year the government of Uzbekistan forcibly mobilizes over a million children, teachers, public servants and private sector employees for the manual planting and harvesting of cotton. The Uzbek government forces farmers to grow cotton and children and adults to harvest cotton under threat of punishment, including loss of the lease to farm the land, criminal charges, verbal and physical abuse, expulsion from school, and dismissal from work. Authorities harass and detain Uzbek activists seeking to monitor the situation. The use of forced labor to prepare fields and harvest cotton violates the labor laws of Uzbekistan and international laws ratified by the Uzbek government, in particular International Labor Organization Conventions No. 105 on the Abolition of Forced Labour and No. 182 on the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour.
Global fight for freedom
The Cotton Campaign is a global coalition of trade unions, human rights NGOs, socially responsible investors, and business associations coalesced to end forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector. We report the voices of Uzbek victims of forced labor: www.cottoncampaign.org/reports, and due to our advocacy around the world, governments, international organizations and the private sector have taken action:
In 2013, the Uzbek Government again forced farmers to produce cotton according to state-imposed production quotas under threat of losing their lease to farm the land and criminal charges. Authorities forced children, mostly aged 16 to 17, and adults — teachers, doctors, nurses, civil servant and private sector employees — to work in the cotton fields under threat of punishment, including verbal abuse and physical abuse, expulsion from school, dismissal from work, and loss of salary, pension and welfare benefits. At least eleven Uzbek citizens died in 2013 as a result of the forced-labor cotton production system, ranging in ages from 6-year old Amirbek Rakhmatov to 63-year old Tursunali Sadikov. Authorities harassed, intimidated and detained Uzbek human rights defenders who attempted to monitor the harvest. Public officials also demanded and accepted payments in return for exemptions from forced labor, fostering corruption throughout the country.
In 2012 and 2013, the Uzbek Government shifted the burden of the harvest from children under age 16 who worked the whole harvest, to older children and adults, often working rotating shifts, thereby increasing the number of people forced to work. Since that shift, we estimate the number of people forced to pick cotton increased from more than 1 million in previous years to as many as 5 million in the 2013 harvest [see methodology here]. That is 16% of Uzbekistan’s population and twice the International Labor Organization’s world-wide estimate of persons subjected to state-sponsored forced labor in 2012.
This year the Uzbek Government has already imposed the annual production quotas on farmers, forced citizens to weed and prepare the cotton fields, and teachers to sign up to work the harvest or resign.
The Impacts: Poverty, Social Degradation and Repression of Civil Rights
The Uzbek Government has absolute control over the purchasing and sales of cotton, wheat and silk, as well as the inputs to grow these products. From cotton alone, the government earns at least $1billion USD annually. The official national budget does not account for income from sales of these products; instead, it goes to the opaque, extra-budgetary “Selkozfond” in the Finance Ministry, to which only the highest level government officials have access and knowledge of its use. Therefore, these funds cannot be used for improvements of the agriculture sector, infrastructure or social purposes such as education. Farmers are not able to earn enough to hire free laborers for the harvest or invest in modernization.
The Uzbek Government has sent doctors, nurses, and other staff of hospitals and clinics from around the country to harvest cotton, making it difficult for people to receive medical care. Students not sent to the cotton harvest were crammed into larger-than-normal classes, or miss subjects, because their teachers were sent to pick cotton. The cost of this missing workforce is estimated to be more than $200 million annually, not accounting for the costs of lost school hours for high-school-aged and university students or farmers’ debts.
The Uzbek Government does not permit independent organizing and represses civil society and the press. The Federation of Trade Unions of Uzbekistan (FTUU) is led by a member of the Uzbek cabinet, and workers have reported that FTUU representatives help mobilize them to the cotton harvest. The Farmers Association functions on behalf of local administrations to ensure fulfillment of state-imposed production targets. Since 2005, the Uzbek government has partially recognized one independent civil-society organization, “Ezgulik”, yet continues to harass and imprison its staff. The Uzbek government prevents media from operating in the country. For example, Muhammad Bekzhanov, who was a pioneer in the effort to document and report about the Government’s forced labor system and other human rights abuses, has spent 15 years in prison and is currently the world’s longest imprisoned journalist. For his sacrifice, Reporters Without Borders honored Mr. Bekzhanov with its Press Freedom Prize in 2013.
The Uzbek government can end forced labor with reforms of the root causes, including: