This week UNICEF reflected on the continued failure of the government of Uzbekistan to end its forced labor system, stating that “the opportunity for change which we had initially identified appears to be no longer available”, and repeated their call for the Government of Uzbekistan to accept monitoring by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
Whether the Uzbek government accepts ILO monitors depends significantly on whether the governments of the United States, the European Union, EU member states and governments around the world send a clear message to the government of Uzbekistan that diplomatic and economic relations depend on their accepting the ILO to conduct unfettered monitoring during the 2012 harvest. The message to the Uzbek government must be immediate. As explained in this memo on the Uzbekistan case before the ILO, July is the deadline for the Uzbek government to accept monitoring if it is to take place this year.
UNICEF’s frustration with the Uzbek government highlights the need for governments to step up and use their stronger points of leverage, including economic and diplomatic, to press the Uzbek government to change its force labor cotton system. The Uzbek government’s tight control over all aspects of the cotton sector is a unique situation that makes any threat of economic sanctions a precise pressure on the Uzbek government to change their policy. It is only the Uzbek government that benefits from its cotton sector. Under the state-controlled cotton system, farmers are legally obligated to deliver cotton to the government-owned gin and receive merely one-third of its value. Meanwhile, the government controls farm inputs, legally denies farmers the opportunity to grow and sell crops of their choosing, and receives over 11% of its export earnings by selling cotton at high market prices and saving on production costs by controlling farmers and the use of forced adult and child labor for harvesting.
Constituencies of the U.S. and EU governments - including apparel brands and retailers, NGOs, socially responsible investors, trade associations and labor unions- have remained united and repeatedly called on governments to urge Uzbekistan to accept ILO monitoring. This is not a drastic measure; monitoring is only a first step, and technical assistance monitoring by the ILO, while a hopeful sign, is not even the tripartite monitoring called for by the ILO Supervisory body. However, if monitoring by the ILO does not occur in 2012, the systematic exploitation of farmers, adults and children by the Uzbek government for cotton production is certain to continue. The cotton quotas for 2012 have been approved, and all reports forecast an increased use of forced labor to meet them.
Now, before the July deadline, all government should insist to the government of Uzbekistan to accept ILO to conduct unfettered monitoring throughout the cotton harvest and with the active participation of civil society.