The U.S. Department of State should maintain Uzbekistan in Tier 3 in the 2014 Global Trafficking in Persons (J/TIP), said 25 investors, human rights NGOs, trade unions and businesses in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry. The coalition is united as the Cotton Campaign to end forced labor of children and adults in the cotton sector in Uzbekistan.
Tier 3 in the Trafficking in Persons Report indicates that a government is not making significant efforts to combat human trafficking and opens up the possibility of sanctions. Uzbekistan does not meet the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, nor is the Uzbek government yet taking real steps to meet those standards.
In 2013, the Uzbek government once again forced farmers to produce state-imposed, annual quotas of cotton and operated an established infrastructure to coercively mobilize more than one million children and adults to pick cotton and prepare the cotton fields. Authorities forced children, mostly aged 16 to 17 years but some as young as 10 years old, to work in the cotton fields under threat of punishment, including expulsion from school, verbal abuse and physical abuse. Adults, including teachers, doctors, nurses, civil servant and private sector employees, were forced to pick cotton under threat of dismissal from work, or the loss of salary, pension and welfare benefits. Authorities harassed, intimidated and detained Uzbek human rights defenders who attempted to monitor the harvest. Public officials also demanded and accepted payments in return for exemptions from forced labor, fostering corruption throughout the country.
During the 2013 cotton harvest, after a decade of global pressure, the Uzbek government reduced the number of children under the age of 16 forced to pick cotton and accepted monitoring by the ILO. In taking these steps Tashkent demonstrated that it does respond to international pressure, including the State Department’s decision to downgrade the country to Tier 3 in last year’s trafficking report, and its ability to change practices unilaterally. Yet the core of the state-orchestrated forced labor system remains unaltered. Whether Tashkent goes on to change the forced labor system depends on the continuation of global pressure, including by the United States, and ongoing ILO monitoring and technical assistance to support the application of fundamental labor conventions.
Unfortunately, significant limitations were placed on the ILO’s efforts to monitor the 2013 harvest. Despite these limitations, the ILO mission reported the use of child labor, emphasized concerns about the use of adult forced labor for the cotton harvest, and recommended that the government take action to implement all fundamental labor conventions.
The labor rights violations in the cotton sector occur in the context of a grave human rights situation in Uzbekistan. Tashkent has steadfastly refused an investigation of the Andijan massacre of 2005. Torture is systematic in police custody and prisons, where dozens of human rights defenders and journalists are held on politically-motivated charges along with thousands of people locked up for practicing their religion. The government tolerates no freedom of speech or assembly and has denied access to all eleven UN special human rights monitors who have requested invitations. In 2013, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had to stop visiting prisoners in Uzbekistan, because the government refuses to cooperate with standard ICRC procedures.
Currently, Uzbekistan does not meet the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, nor is it yet taking real steps to meet those standards. On this basis, we call on the State Department to place Uzbekistan in Tier 3 in the 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report. An upgrade to another placement would reward the government of Uzbekistan in spite of its continued, flagrant disregard of its national laws and international commitments. The Tier 3 placement would, on the other hand, communicate the need to end forced labor to the Uzbek government. Clear messages from the U.S. government, the European Union and multilateral agencies have contributed to key policy decisions by the Uzbek government.
In 2005 the ILO supervisory bodies began to consistently express concern for the use of forced labor of children and adults in cotton production in Uzbekistan. In 2008 the U.S. Department of Labor investigated forced child labor in cotton production in Uzbekistan and added cotton from Uzbekistan to the list of goods made by forced child labor in 2009. The Uzbek government ratified international conventions on child labor in 2008 and 2009. In December 2011, the European Parliament voted 603 to 8 not to extend the EU-Uzbekistan Partnership and Cooperation Agreement to trade in cotton and textiles, and in January 2012 the United States Trade Representative reviewed the Generalized System of Trade Preferences for Uzbekistan. The Uzbek government met with the ILO in Tashkent in March 2012. In October 2012, the French National Contact Point of the OECD issued guidance to multinational enterprises not to trade Uzbek cotton, and in June 2013 the U.S. government placed Uzbekistan in Tier 3 of the 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report. In July 2013 the Uzbek government agreed to allow ILO monitors to observe the cotton harvest, albeit under restricted terms. From September to November 2013, the South Korean Human Rights Commission investigated companies operating in Uzbekistan; the U.S. government applied the Tariff Act by holding shipments of cotton from Uzbekistan; and the World Bank Inspection Panel investigated the World Bank’s project in Uzbekistan. The ILO reports that in November the Uzbek government “expressed their willingness to continue to collaborate with the ILO to address child labour and other related issues,” including all fundamental rights of workers.
Yet the Uzbek people continue to suffer under the state forced labor system, because the Uzbek government has not made serious and significant efforts to end its forced labor policy and practice.
Download the letter to Secretary of State Kerry here.
CONTACT: Cotton Campaign Coordinator - c/o International Labor Rights Forum, 1634 I Street NW, Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20006. +1 202-347-4100, cottoncampaigncoordinator [at] gmail.com