Interviews

Jonas Astrup on Reforming Uzbekistan’s Cotton Industry

As Uzbekistan makes progress on ending forced labor, Tashkent is open about the remaining challenges.

Catherine Putz
Jonas Astrup on Reforming Uzbekistan’s Cotton Industry

Women pick cotton near the town of Andijan, Uzbekistan, April 6, 2005.

Credit: AP Photo/Mikhail Metzel

Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest has, in many ways, come to embody the country’s gravest problems. Forced child and adult labor epitomized an autocratic state and an iron-fisted ruler. Naturally, when Shavkat Mirziyoyev became president following the 2016 death of Islam Karimov and began talking reform, attention turned to the cotton harvest. If there was to be reform, the cotton harvest would have to be a target. The annual fall harvest includes the mobilization of more than 2.5 million people. In past years, Uzbek government officials shied away from (or rather, aggressively avoided) discussing the industry, let alone its darkest aspects, but in the past two years attitudes have shifted and statistics regarding the number of people forced to pick cotton have fallen.

The Diplomat asked Jonas Astrup, the International Labor Organization’s chief technical adviser in Uzbekistan, about the ILO’s work in the country and ongoing efforts to eradicate forced labor the cotton industry.

In April, the ILO published a report containing its findings from third-party monitoring of the 2018 cotton harvest in Uzbekistan. Can you explain for our readers what the Third-Party Monitoring (TPM) Project is?

The ILO TPM Project conducts independent monitoring for child labor and forced labor in the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan. The Uzbek cotton harvest is the world’s largest recruitment effort, with some 2.5 million people picking cotton from September to November every year. The ILO has been monitoring the cotton harvest for child labor since 2013. In 2015, we began monitoring the harvest for forced labor and child labor as part of an agreement with the World Bank. The TPM Project is funded through a multi-donor trust fund with contributions from the European Union, Switzerland and the U.S. State Department.

In 2017, we began facilitating a dialogue process between local human rights activists and the government on fundamental rights and principles at work. I know that both the government officials and the activists agree that the dialogue has led to a completely new situation in Uzbekistan where there is an open exchange of opinions between civil society and the government on what the most important challenges are and how to best address them. I’m not saying that all problems have been solved but it is important to recognize this progress and the fact that we now have this dialogue in place means that changes become more sustainable and focused on the priorities and needs of the people of Uzbekistan.

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The TPM Project is also supporting a comprehensive awareness raising campaign to ensure people are aware of their labor rights and know how to contact the Ministry of Labor’s feedback mechanism if they have questions or concerns. In 2018, the ILO TPM Project worked with Human Rights Watch and Voice of America to train local journalists on investigative journalism and labor rights. This training was welcomed by the government and while there is still a need for more critical reporting on forced labor we have seen a significant positive development in how Uzbek journalists report on these issues.

These are just a few examples of our activities. In 2018, the ILO TPM Project trained over 7,000 people involved with the cotton harvest on Fair Recruitment. We also trained almost 1,000 labor inspectors, journalists, public prosecutors, trade union and government officials. Our 2018 TPM Report is based on more than 11,000 unaccompanied and unannounced interviews with a representative sample of the country’s 2.5 million cotton pickers.

One of the 2018 TPM Report’s top conclusions is that “systematic or systemic child labor can no longer be considered a serious concern” in Uzbekistan and that “systematic or systemic forced [adult] labor was not exacted by the government of Uzbekistan” in 2018. How do these finding measure up to past monitoring missions and what factors do you believe have contributed to improvement with regard to “systematic or systemic” forced labor?

Yes, the ILO confirms that there is no more systematic or systemic child labor or forced labor in the Uzbek cotton harvest. There are still many individual cases of forced labor but these are caused by incidents and uneven implementation at the local level. There are no central government policies, regulations, systems or actions designed to force people to pick cotton. Rather, what we see today is a deliberate and systematic effort by the government to completely eradicate forced labor.

Our 2018 monitoring shows that the vast majority of cotton pickers are not forced. However, a minority of the pickers – 6.8 percent to be precise – still experience involuntary recruitment practices including coercion and threats. This translates into 170,000 people who were forced to pick cotton in 2018 and while this is not an acceptable situation, it is important to compare that with the 2017 harvest where the number was 330,000. That’s a 48 percent reduction year on year.

The government deserves recognition for these results, which are driven by clear policies prohibiting forced labor, increased wages, better recruitment mechanisms, and a reduction in the land allocated for cotton. The government also punished some 206 hokims (regional governors), managers, and leaders for forced labor violations in 2018.

The report also notes that “legacy systems conducive to the exaction of forced labor have not yet been fully dismantled.” One such system often mentioned is the “quota system.” Can you describe how this system works and in what way it contributes to instances of forced labor?

The term “quota system” is often used to describe the state order system for agriculture. This is a legacy system from the Soviet Union which is based on three key elements:

  1. Central allocation of land for certain crops. This is not unique to Uzbekistan and we see this in other countries with limited agricultural land. Basically, the government allocates different districts and areas for certain crops such as cotton, wheat, vegetables, etc.
  2. The prices for agricultural commodities are set by the government. This system is changing but today the prices are still set centrally.
  3. Financing for production inputs comes with targets. The government offers financing at a favorable rate for inputs (seeds, fertilizers, etc.) but this financing contract comes with a production target. This means that farmers commit to producing a certain quantity of, for example, cotton.

None of these systems are designed to force people to pick cotton. However, especially the production targets can be conducive to forced labor as some producers may experience pressure toward the end of the harvest to meet the target. Generally speaking it is far more attractive for workers to pick cotton in the early stages of the harvest when there is plenty of high-quality cotton in the fields. Toward the end of November we sometimes see situations where a producer who has not yet met the target may choose to continue the harvest even when there is very little cotton left in the fields and it is not attractive for pickers to work in those fields. These situations increase the risk of forced labor.

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It is important to recognize that the government is reforming these legacy systems but it takes time to change an entire agricultural system. You can’t simply shift to different crops without having the systems, storage facilities, and commercial channels in place to support this change. Also, many irrigation systems have been designed for specific crops and this takes time to change. This is an area where we are working closely with our colleagues at the World Bank, who are supporting the government in achieving these improvements to the agricultural system. The government is pursuing a strategy of gradual privatization and liberalization of the cotton sector.

One of the report’s recommendations is to “focus on sustainable job creation through processing of raw materials and manufacturing of products for export.” What barriers does Uzbekistan currently face when it comes to processing raw cotton and/or manufacturing textile products?

Job creation is important to Uzbekistan as 500,000 young people enter the labor market every year and the unemployed population that need jobs exceeds 800,000 people. The official unemployment rate for 2018 was 9.3 percent and it is over 17 percent for young people. This has led to a situation where approximately 2.4 million Uzbeks are migrant workers abroad and in many cases are vulnerable to exploitation and poor working conditions.

The solution is to move up the value chain and create more jobs in Uzbekistan. The government is pursuing a strategy of attracting private textile and garment factories with a view to export not raw cotton but rather textiles and finished products. This is a good objective that will not only create much needed jobs but also reduce risks of forced labor as less cotton will be needed and jobs will become permanent rather than seasonal.

The main challenge here is to attract international investors and buyers. It is no secret that there is an ongoing effort by some groups at the international level to prevent and discourage sourcing of Uzbek cotton and textiles.

The ILO doesn’t make sourcing decisions. Different companies have different business models and different attitudes toward risk. It is important that companies have easy access to factual and reliable information that allows them to manage their supply chains effectively and in a responsible manner. The ILO cares deeply about decent working conditions in global supply chains. We work closely with textile and garment companies everywhere in the world to make that a reality.

The ILO would like to see responsible investors and buyers coming to Uzbekistan to assist the country in developing the textile and garment industry in a manner that leads to the creation of decent jobs. In order to facilitate that process, we believe in openness, transparency, and easy access to data. Hopefully our 2018 TPM report can be helpful in that regard.

There are different opinions on this issue but a group of local independent Uzbek human rights activists recently issued a signed statement arguing for the boycott of Uzbek cotton, textiles, and garments to be lifted. From the business side, I hear many people say that companies who are not already considering the new Uzbekistan as a possible future investment or sourcing destination may be losing out on an opportunity. People are, of course, free to express their views on this matter. I would simply encourage international companies to visit Uzbekistan for themselves and engage directly with local partners on the ground to fully understand the situation. This is already happening and since mid-2018 we have seen a significant increase in business delegations from Europe visiting Uzbekistan.

Openness and international engagement is important to realize the next phase of the reform process, which will not only benefit the government and businesses but also civil society organizations, human rights defenders, and the people of Uzbekistan.

The Uzbek government has been much more engaged in the last few years in discussing the cotton harvest and associated issues regarding forced labor more openly, but what are discussions inside Uzbekistan regarding cotton like?

The reality is that Uzbekistan is going through a transformative reform process. It should not come as a surprise that the conversations we have with top government officials about forced labor have changed as well. Today, I feel comfortable saying that we are aligned with the government about the scale of the problem and which measures need to be taken to fully eradicate forced labor. I also find that we are aligned with the local Uzbek human rights activist community who took part in the 2018 ILO monitoring.

I see Uzbek top government officials being far more confident today. They openly acknowledge that there are still outstanding problems that need to be tackled. I think this confidence stems from the results of the reform process. The country has demonstrated that the reforms are working and forced labor has dramatically reduced as a result. This makes them more open to engagement and dialogue with critical voices such as the human rights activists.

The unambiguous message that we hear again and again from top government officials, activists, companies, journalists, and people on the street is that forced labor is unacceptable and should never be tolerated. There is no denial that there is still work to be done but I think many feel encouraged by the progress to date and it gives people confidence in the reform process.

What do you hope to see in the 2019 harvest? What areas do you think the Uzbek government will (or should) focus on now?

Our report contains a long list of detailed recommendations but let me highlight a few specific steps that we believe the government should focus on for the 2019 harvest:

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  1. Keep increasing wages. Cotton picking provides an important source of income for unemployed people in the rural areas. Money remains the single most important motivating factor for people volunteering to pick cotton.
  2. Keep improving working and living conditions to encourage labor mobility. Some regions have scarcity of people, which makes it more difficult to find enough voluntary pickers. Our monitoring shows that people are willing to pick cotton in other regions provided the working and living conditions are acceptable.
  3. Keep developing a free and open environment for monitoring and reporting during the harvest. In 2018, local activists and journalists were not restricted in their activities to monitor the harvest. This is important and we have also seen more open reporting, and more free access to news and information online and elsewhere.
  4. Keep privatizing and liberalizing the sector. This is important not only to create decent jobs but also to further reduce and limit the role of government officials in cotton production. The government should instead focus on creating an enabling business environment, including an efficient labor inspectorate.
  5. Keep punishing perpetrators for forced labor violations. Develop an approach that allows for using the criminal code as appropriate.  
  6. Prohibit local/individual initiatives to provide replacement pickers or collection of fees from private companies and/or individuals in relation to the cotton harvest.
  7. Keep evolving the labor market and strengthen the independent tripartite structure through social dialogue, freedom of association, and collective bargaining.