This article was originally published on the Solidarity Center blog here, on September 14, 2015.
By Tula Connell
Health care workers in Uzbekistan are toiling in cotton fields and third- and fourth-year university students are now on their way as well, forced by the government to labor in the country’s fall harvest, according to stories compiled by the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights. The nonprofit organization also is highlighting news that minors again may be forced into picking cotton.
Each harvest season, the government mobilizes more than 1 million residents to the pick cotton through systematic coercion, “with profits benefiting the government elite rather than the people,” according to a statement by the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of organizations that includes the Solidarity Center.
During the 2014 harvest, the government mobilized more public employees than in previous years, likely to make up for fewer child laborers, according to a 2015 Uzbek-German Forum report. Uzbekistan has cut back on the use of child labor in the cotton fields following worldwide condemnation.
From September through October, many classrooms shut down because teachers are among those forced to pick cotton. Health clinics and hospitals are unable to function fully with so many health care workers also toiling in the fields.
This year, the government of Uzbekistan is expected to make $1 billion in profit from cotton sales, money that disappears into an extra-budgetary fund in the Finance Ministry to which only the highest-level officials have access, according to the Uzbek-German Forum report.
At least 17 people died and numerous people were injured in last year’s cotton harvest due to poor or unsafe working and living conditions. Workers are forced to toil long hours often without access to clean drinking water and typically work without crucial safety and health gear, exposed to toxic pesticides and dangerous equipment.
“Food is not provided. Everyone must bring their own bread and tomatoes,” says one health care worker. “The cotton is very low. In the sand there are a lot of snakes.”
Many employees are threatened with loss of employment, loss of utilities and other public services, fines and criminal prosecution if they do not participate in the cotton harvest. Those who refuse to participate in the cotton harvest may even see their pensions and other work benefits cut.
Uzbek police twice assaulted human rights monitor Elena Urlaeva this year, once in May for documenting forced labor in the cotton fields and again in August for distributing pamphlets explaining laws that prohibit forced labor.
In July, the U.S. State Department boosted the ranking of Uzbekistan in its Trafficking in Persons report, moving it up to the “Tier 2 Watchlist.” The designation means the State Department claims Uzbekistan does not fully comply with the U.S. Trafficking Victims and Protection Act (TVPA) standards but is making significant efforts to become compliant. In its 2014 report, the State Department ranked Uzbekistan as “Tier 3,” the lowest designation that means it does not fully comply with the minimum TVPA standards.
Earlier this year, the Solidarity Center was among 30 global unions, business associations and nonprofit networks urging the U.S. State Department to ensure its Trafficking in Persons report accurately reflect the serious, ongoing and government-sponsored forced labor in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said during a June visit to Uzbekistan that more must be done now to address “the mobilization of teachers, doctors and others in cotton harvesting, and prevent the maltreatment of prisoners.” Dozens of labor and human rights organizations, including the Solidarity Center, had sent a letter to Ban Ki-moon urging him to raise the issue of forced labor.
The new report “Silk Loop for Uzbek Farmers” gives inside in Uzbek silk production and the wide use of forced labour in this industry.
Executive SummaryUzbekistan, a leading producer of silk cocoons, relies on forced labor for their production, which violates the rights of farmers and public-sector workers and exploits the vulnerability of the rural poor. Uzbek farmers and public organizations must produce silk cocoons under coercion to fulfill government quotas and they must sell their cocoons to the government at the official procurement price, leaving them little or no profit, and in many cases debt. The government of Uzbekistan processes and sells some silk cocoons domestically but exports the majority to global markets for hard currency. The central government establishes cocoon production policy, prices, and annual silk production targets, and requires regional- and district-level officials to ensure targets are met. Local officials use coercion, including threatening farmers that they will lose their land, to force farmers and public-sector institutions to fulfill annual silk quotas. Farmers, in turn, oblige family members, including children, or pay local laborers to assist in the cultivation of silkworm cocoons to meet required production quotas and avoid penalties. The system relies on and exploits rural poverty as many farmers can only meet their production targets with the help of local workers who agree to assist in the arduous job of cocoon production in return for desperately needed items such as firewood and food. Directors of public institutions require their staff to cultivate silkworm cocoons or make payments to contribute to the institution’s quota and avoid fines and other repercussions.
Although the government promises to pay producers a government-set price for silk cocoons, in practice, the government usually only pays producers a small advance on the value expected from the producers’ quota of cocoons. We found that in many cases the government underpays or fails to pay producers upon delivery of cocoons. Silk production is expensive, labor intensive, and not commercially viable for farmers and other producers. All farmers we interviewed said that the government forces them to cultivate silk cocoons, in violation of national and international laws prohibiting forced labor, and that they cannot refuse the government’s orders.
Download Silk Loop for Uzbek Farmers Report as PDFС
качать доклад “Шелковая петля для узбекского фермера” в формате PDF
Thomson Reuters Foundation published this article originally on September 8, 2015
by Klara Skrivankova, Europe Programme and Advocacy Co-ordinator at Anti-Slavery International
Last week the cotton harvests started in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. It is expected that as in previous years, the crop will be picked by state sponsored forced labour on a mass scale. Events like these test the preparedness of British businesses for their new duty to report on their efforts to eradicate slavery from their supply chains.
Under the transparency in supply chains provision in the Modern Slavery Act, UK registered businesses with annual turnover over £36 million will be required to publish a statement indicating what they are doing to address forced labour in their supply chains.
To report is all that is required. Parts of the government have been keen to point out to businesses just how little will be required of them and that its primary intention is not to overburden businesses with reporting.
No formal monitoring or review mechanism is attached to the transparency provision, nor has the government agreed to create a central government repository for the reports, as it believes that the accuracy of the company reports is best assessed by civil society and consumers.
There are two fundamental flaws in this approach: First, it is not the responsibility of the populus to police the implementation of a law. Second, even if this approach were appropriate, much business is not consumer facing and so there are even fewer possibilities for ethically engaged consumers to pressurise for change. For example, commodity traders or suppliers of components for diverse retail goods may act with considerable impunity irrespective of how egregious the human rights abuses in their supply chains may be.
Cotton is one such commodity through which traders - some of whom are UK based – may play a part in perpetuating global slavery. The fifth and seventh largest cotton exporting countries in the world are Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Both countries have historically used forced labour to produce and harvest cotton.
Unlike in other countries in which there is a considerable risk of forced labour in the supply chain, such as Bangladesh or India, it is not unscrupulous businessmen behind forced labour in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The governments of these countries have systematically coerced their own citizens to cultivate and pick cotton under threat of punishment.
The vast profits from the sale of cotton benefit a small elite rather than the people of the country. Forced labour of their own citizens has been accompanied with sustained campaigns to silence anyone who tries to document forced labour and publicise the abuses abroad.
Last year, millions of teachers, doctors and nurses were forced into the cotton fields in Uzbekistan, leaving essential services decimated. This year we are unlikely to see much change. Nurses in one district were required by the hospital management to sign documents stating that they will voluntarily agree to go to the cotton harvest. At the same time, they had to sign an undated resignation letter that would be used if they fail to turn up for the harvest.
The Uzbek government buys all the cotton at a price it sets and sells it on international markets with huge profits. While most Uzbek cotton is sold to China and Bangladesh, some European traders, such as the Liverpool based Cargill Cotton, which confirms on its website that it sources from Central Asia, continue to purchase cotton that has a huge risk of being produced through slavery.
Even international businesses that do not trade in cotton or cotton products, but have business operations in Uzbekistan, are also at risk of contributing to and profiting from forced labour. Workers at General Motors Uzbekistan have reported that for several years, their company has sent them to the cotton harvest. Scandinavian telecommunications companies Teliasonera and Telenor reported that they sponsored the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan. Campaigners understand that the requirement to contribute financially to the cotton harvest applies to all multinational companies that operate in Uzbekistan.
The Modern Slavery Act, for all its flaws, can still have a very positive effect on how British business operates. But to achieve that, the government needs to step up its game for the implementation of the Act and change how it communicates with British businesses about the risks of slavery.
The soon-to-be published guidance for businesses on the implementation of the transparency provision should not only encourage good practice in eradicating slavery in business operations, but also direct businesses to independent sources of information about places and commodities at risk. The government should also amend the Overseas Business Risk Information to include information about forced labour in Turkmenistan and put Uzbekistan on the list.
But most importantly, the British government ought to clearly communicate to the governments of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan that they need to stop the enslavement of their own citizens, rather than only promote trading with both countries.
It remains to be seen if the British government grasps these opportunities, or satisfies itself with polite words that compel no change in business practices that keep millions across the world enslaved.