On April 3rd, the Cabinet of Ministers of Uzbekistan approved an action plan “on additional measures on implementation of the Convention on Forced Labour and convention on Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention in 2012-2013”, as reported by UzDaily.com. Importantly, the announcement by President Islam Karimov’s administration acknowledges the existence of forced labor and forced child labor in Uzbekistan. Unfortunately, recent history suggests that such announcements by Mr. Karimov’s administration offer little promise of ending the state-sponsored forced labor and forced child labor in the cotton industry and other sectors. To the contrary, under its action plan, the Uzbekistan Government is to monitor forced child labor, a proposal that is akin to the proverbial fox guarding the hen house and a signal to the international community to urgently support independent monitoring by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
Over the last decade, the government of Uzbekistan has formed similar action plans, but the use of forced labor and forced child labor in the Uzbek cotton harvests is grave, persistent and systematically made possible by national government policy. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and International Organisation of Employers (IOE) have consistently reported that the Government systematically mobilizes children and adults to work the cotton harvest. Under this state-controlled forced labor system, there are an estimated 2.4 million children forced out of school and into the dangerous and dirty work of cotton harvesting each year. Their teachers, and just about anyone else in an organized group, are also forced to work the cotton harvest. In 2011, even employees of General Motors’ plants in Uzbekistan were reportedly forced to take leave from their jobs and work the harvest.
This latest announcement of an action plan by Mr. Karimov’s administration closely follows the report of the ILO Committee of Experts on the application of standards, released in March. The ILO Committee calls on the Government of Uzbekistan to accept an ILO monitoring mission and technical assistance. Mr. Karimov’s administration has refused independent observation and support from the ILO in the past. As reported by Human Rights Watch, “The government has moved to dismantle the independent legal profession and has closed off the country to independent monitoring and human rights work.” There is, as Human Rights Watch reports, “No One Left to Witness” the use of forced labor, forced child labor and repression of critical voices by the Mr. Karimov’s administration.
Governments, investors and purchasers of Uzbek cotton products should recognize that the formation of an action plan by Mr. Karimov’s administration offers little hope of ending forced labor and forced child labor in cotton production, and can seize the moment to communicate their support for an ILO mission to investigate and monitor fundamental labor rights in Uzbekistan.