By Jeff Goldstein, Senior Policy Analyst, Open Society Foundations
Chairman Chris Smith (R-NJ) expressed grave concern that the government of Uzbekistan continues to force hundreds of thousands of men, women and children to labor in the annual cotton harvest. Rep. Smith stated his concern yesterday, at an April 18 hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations, which he chairs.
Testifying at the hearing, Ambassador Mark Lagon, who served as the State Department’s Ambassador-at-Large for Trafficking in Persons during the George W. Bush administration, called Uzbekistan the “most appalling case” in the former-Soviet neighborhood. Lagon went challenged those within the U.S. government who wish to downplay the massive tragedy of forced labor in Uzbekistan for geopolitical reasons. “There are loud voices within the U.S. Government,” he said, “who say the U.S. must downplay any distraction which might upset Uzbekistan’s cooperation in the Northern Distribution Network getting supplies to troops in Afghanistan…. But if as unreconstructed and unrepentant an autocracy as Uzbekistan is let off the hook because of a supply mechanism for troops being winnowed from Afghanistan anyway, it would be a travesty.”
Due to amendments in the most recent reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), the State Department will no longer be able to park Uzbekistan – as it has for the last several years – on the Tier II Watch List, the second lowest step in its scale for rating countries’ efforts to prevent trafficking in persons. This spring, State must either upgrade Uzbekistan to Tier II (countries failing to meet the minimum standards set out in the TVPA but making significant efforts to improve the situation) or downgrade it to Tier III (countries failing both to meet the TVPA’s minimum standards and to make significant efforts to do so). David Abramowitz, Humanity United’s Vice President of Government Relations, warned the hearing against prematurely upgrading countries such as Uzbekistan to Tier II, noting that, while seeking to appease the international community by forcing fewer young children to pick cotton in 2012, the Uzbek government had in their place mobilized more adults and older children (ages 15-17), substituting one form of forced labor with more of another.
Speaking on behalf of the Cotton Campaign, Brian Campbell, International Labor Rights Forum’s Director of Policy, detailed the mass use of forced labor during Uzbekistan’s 2012 cotton harvest, and catalogued a number of alarming trends, including greater corruption (people being forced to pay money to officials to avoid being sent to pick cotton), disruption of services (hospitals and schools closed or unable to provide normal services while staff was out picking cotton), and continued intimidation of those who did not wish to pick cotton through threats of expulsion from school or loss of jobs or government benefits. Campbell concluded that the first key step the Government of Uzbekistan must take to indicate it is serious about abandoning a cotton system predicated on the mass use of forced labor is to invite the International Labor Organization to monitor the fall 2013 harvest and prepare recommendations for steps to end forced labor. He urged Rep. Smith and the other Members present to join the Coalition in pressing the State Department to make clear to Uzbek officials that inviting the ILO to monitor the upcoming harvest is the only way they can avoid a well-deserved downgrade to Tier III.
We hope you will join in these efforts as well! Please write your Congressman and Senators. Tell them that it is time for the U.S. government to stand up more strongly to the officials in Tashkent who benefit from the use of forced labor by demanding that they either invite the ILO to monitor this fall’s harvest or be downgraded to Tier III status when the State Department issues its annual Trafficking Report in June.