Uzbekistan continues forced labor: U.S. should urge reform
Press Release: Global coalition calls on the United States to use its leverage end state-sponsored forced labor of children and adults in the cotton sector in Uzbekistan
(April 16, 2013) – The US Department of State should place Uzbekistan in Tier 3 in the 2013 Global Trafficking in Persons Report (J/TIP) unless the Uzbek government invites a high-level, tripartite International Labour Organization (ILO) observer mission to monitor this fall’s harvest prior to the report’s release, said 50 business associations, companies, investors, NGOs and trade unions in a letter today 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. While many governments fail to effectively curb human trafficking, the Uzbek government has organized, orchestrated and benefited from forced labor for decades. During the 2012 cotton harvest the Uzbek government once again mobilized the forced labor of hundreds of thousands of children and adults in the fields. Public servants – including teachers, nurses, doctors and military personnel, private sector employees, university students and children were forced to pick cotton under threats of punishment, such as loss of employment, docked salary, denied welfare benefits and expulsion from school.
“The Uzbek government’s systematic use of forced adult and child labor in the cotton sector this year and its persistent failure to allow the ILO to visit the country to monitor these practices must be represented for what it is in the State Department’s report,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia Researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Anything less than a Tier 3 would fail the well over a million children and adults in Uzbekistan who fall victim to the system of modern-day slavery each year.”
With the annual Trafficking in Persons Report, the State Department identifies human trafficking and efforts of governments to end such egregious human rights violations around the world. “Unless Uzbekistan invites the ILO to monitor the fall harvest beforehand, ranking Uzbekistan anywhere but Tier 3 would raise serious questions about the credibility of the Trafficking in Persons Report, said Bennett Freeman, Senior Vice President for Social Research and Policy, Calvert Investments. “Businesses, investors, unions and NGOs rely on this report for accurate and authoritative guidance.”
In the coming weeks, the US government has a legal requirement to upgrade or downgrade Uzbekistan in the 2013 J/TIP Report. The release of the Report coincides with the annual meeting of the ILO, where employers, workers and governments are expected to hold a hearing on Uzbekistan.
“The timing of the J/TIP report presents the US government a unique chance to contribute to ending forced labor in Uzbekistan,” said Brian Finnegan, Global Workers' Rights Coordinator, AFL-CIO. “Globally, workers and employers have called repeatedly on Uzbekistan to invite the ILO to monitor, because the Uzbek government’s forced labor system of cotton production violates its national law and international commitments.”
In the letter to Secretary Kerry, the coalition notes the State Department’s extraordinary opportunity with this year’s J/TIP Report. If the Uzbek government fails to invite the ILO prior to the June release of the Report and the State Department ranks Uzbekistan Tier 3, State may sustain principled engagement by urging them to invite the ILO observer mission for the fall cotton harvest, to avoid sanctions available under Tier 3.
Critics of this policy might argue that the U.S. should not risk upsetting the Uzbek government, because we need its railroads and airspace to supply and withdraw our troops in Afghanistan. However, in addition to the moral case for action, the U.S. should consider the Uzbek people, who will long remember whether the U.S. did everything in its power to end their servitude. Forced labor of children and adults in cotton fields ought to be one thing the U.S. calls on the Uzbek government to abolish.
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