The government of Uzbekistan reports all is well within its cloistered borders. But evidence, gathered by citizens and local monitors again this year, confirms that the country still fills its coffers using one of the world’s largest state-run systems of forced labor to produce cotton.
Uzbekistan’s abusive harvest exploits farmers and workers to feed a government slush fund, to the tune of about $1 billion a year. Annually, the government forces farmers to cultivate cotton and then compels millions of citizens to pick it. Penalties for refusing to work, or to not work hard enough, include beatings, expulsion from school or university, loss of employment in the public or private sector, denial of public benefits and social services, and even confiscation of land.
Sometimes the toll is even more extreme. This year, 17 people died during the harvest. Three people committed suicide, including a seventh-grade girl forced to pick cotton and a farmer who could not deliver his quota. A mother lost her two children, ages 3 and 5, when they perished in a fire at home while she was in the field. And Murod Melikuziev died of a heart attack while picking cotton in place of his grandson, whose school ordered families to work the harvest instead of their schoolchildren.
As Uzbek citizen monitors have documented, cotton production in 2014 differed from the last 23 years only in the average age of cotton pickers and frequency of extortion by government authorities. Both apparently increased. Otherwise, the Uzbek government maintained its complete monopoly over the production of “white gold.” In January and February, the Prime Minister and regional governors assigned annual production quotas to farmers. In April and May, schools and hospitals sent their staff to weed and prepare cotton fields. In July and August, high school administrators required students to sign statements acknowledging they will be expelled if they disobey orders to pick cotton, and administrators of schools and hospitals required staff to sign up for shifts during the cotton harvest or resign. The Prime Minister the start of the harvest on September 8, and within the week, authorities coerced over a million citizens to the cotton fields. President Islam Karimov declared the national target of 3.4 million tons fulfilled on October 24, but many adults and children labored in the fields through the end of October.
After years of global pressure, the government began reducing its coercive mobilization of children in 2013, yet instead of enabling farmers to hire people, it has since increased forced labor of adults. And despite a national law that prohibits child labor and forced labor, when faced with the decision to fulfill their cotton quota or follow the law against child labor, officials sent children to the fields, knowing failure to deliver their quota would cost their job. Children lucky enough to avoid cotton picking this year sat in empty classrooms, their teachers diverted to the harvest. Doctors and nurses left hospitals understaffed for two months. Increased use of adults also fostered corruption. Officials demanded payments for exemptions from workers seeking to avoid cotton picking, from anyone who could not fulfill the daily quota, and from business owners—always with the rationale that the payments contributed to the national production target.
With its public message disconnected from reality, the Uzbek government harassed and detained citizen monitors throughout the harvest. Authorities detained human rights monitor Dmitry Tikhonov on September 28, after he photographed and interviewed high-school students picking cotton, and again on October 15, after he participated in a workshop on monitoring International Labor Organization conventions. Authorities strip searched human rights monitor Elena Urlaeva on October 14, the third time this harvest they held her.
Today the farmers, teachers, nurses, parents and millions of victims of the forced labor system are recovering from another harvest. While the Uzbek government could end this system today, it has demonstrated political will comes only under clear pressure. And the system is far too lucrative to give up easily.
It is time to make this feudal system too costly for Tashkent. We must call on our leaders to condemn the government of Uzbekistan’s use of forced labor, demand that cotton buyers and manufacturers ensure they do not use forced labor cotton, and put an end to the exploitation of the country’s workforce and its children.