Crossroads Asia

Uzbekistan Making Progress to Phase Out Forced Cotton Labor, Report Says

Forced labor remains a reality in Uzbekistan, but the ILO and others are encouraged by the government’s progress.

Catherine Putz
Uzbekistan Making Progress to Phase Out Forced Cotton Labor, Report Says
Credit: Flickr / kimberlykv

On March 25, a notice posted to the Federal Register by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs provided official notification that Uzbek cotton was to be removed from a list of products produced with child labor. A week later, the International Labor Organization (ILO) released its report on the 2018 Uzbek cotton harvest determining, among other conclusions, that “child labour can no longer be considered a serious concern.”

With regard to the Federal Register announcement, relevant departments — the Departments of Labor, State, and Homeland Security — “have determined that the use of forced child labor in the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan has been significantly reduced to isolated incidents,” the notice read.

A 1999 executive order aimed at further fighting the use of child labor in particular, requires the Department of Labor, with the assistance of other departments to produce “a list of products, identified by their country of origin, that those Departments have a reasonable basis to believe might have been mined, produced, or manufactured by forced or indentured child labor.” While being listed does not necessarily ban a product from import to the United States, it does require U.S. government contractors which do import listed products to make a “good faith effort to determine whether forced or indentured child labor was used to mine, produce, or manufacture” the products

As RFE/RL pointed out in its report of the de-listing, “Uzbek cotton remains on the Labor Department’s list of goods produced with forced labor or child labor — as opposed to the narrower category of forced child labor.”

While forced labor remains a reality in Uzbekistan, the ILO and others are encouraged by the Uzbek government’s efforts to eliminate its use.

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The ILO report, produced after conducting monitoring of the 2018 harvest, offers some of the most positive news to come out regarding the Uzbek cotton industry in many years.

The report’s executive summary is unequivocal: “Uzbekistan demonstrated major progress in the eradication of child labour and forced labour in the cotton harvest of 2018. Forced labour during the harvest was reduced by 48 percent compared to 2017.”

Among the report’s top-line conclusions, beyond the child labor determination noted above, is that forced labor was not exacted in a “systematic or systemic fashion by the Uzbek government.” Nevertheless, the report also comments that “A considerable number of forced labour cases were still observed, and legacy systems conducive to the exaction of forced labour have not yet been fully dismantled.”

The ILO estimates that 170,000 people were forced to pick cotton in the 2018 harvest. While that is a large number of people, it represents just 6.8 percent of the total force of cotton pickers mobilized for the 2018 harvest. More importantly, the trend is encouraging: 2018’s percentage of forced labor is down 48 percent from the 13 percent observed in 2017. The ILO also said in the report that it had confirmed “wages were increased by up to 85 percent” over the previous year. Furthermore, “prohibition on recruiting students, teachers, nurses and doctors was systematically implemented and generally observed at the local level.”

The ILO report also lists 206 cases of local hokims, officials, and managers who were punished for forced labor during 2018 cotton harvest. The list only includes the officials’ initials and omits precise locations, for privacy reasons, but as was pointed out on social media by journalists and activists, full names are needed for complete transparency. As Chris Rickleton suggested, this is critical to making sure fired officials don’t just reappear in new positions. The ILO report notes that the full details are known to the ILO Third-Party Monitoring Project.

In total, the ILO report shines a positive light on the progress made by the Uzbek government in eliminating forced labor. While, as the report itself states, some of the “legacy systems” that enable forced labor remain in place, the overall trend is significant progress and Tashkent has position itself as a partner in that effort.

“In line with the request of its partners in Uzbekistan, in particular the government, this report contains concrete suggestions for action,” the ILO report states (emphases mine). The Uzbek government has been hungry for suggestions, and the ILO delivers those. The challenge will be achieving continued progress after the easy gains are made.

The report’s recommendations are divided into things the government should “keep doing,” “do more” of, “start,” “do less” of, and “stop.” The recommendations are wide-ranging, from “Keep encouraging journalists to raise awareness of labour rights and report on labour violations; “Keep using social media,” to “increase mechanization”; and “Focus on sustainable job creation through processing of raw materials and manufacturing of products for export.” Importantly, the recommendations encourage the Uzbek government to reduce its role in the cotton industry, reduce low-yield production in areas with low population resources, but also to “phase out role of Hokimiats, state institutions and enterprises for recruitment of pickers.”