If the ultimate goal is the eradication of all forced labor in Uzbekistan, Tashkent hasn’t yet achieved it. While most observers concede progress on this front, and welcome greater openness on the part of Uzbek authorities in discussing the cotton industry, the reality remains that some people in Uzbekistan are forced to pick cotton and state policies aid and abet this exploitation. When the overall theme is progress, it becomes all the more important to keep track of persistent challenges and underlying causes; it’s vital to continue open conversations about both.
Umida Niyazova, director of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, explains the findings of her organization’s report on the 2018 harvest and identifies the factors sustaining forced labor — despite significant and real improvements — in the following interview with The Diplomat.
One of the key findings of the UGF’s report on the 2018 cotton harvest in Uzbekistan highlights a “real and significant” high-level commitment to end forced labor on the part of the Uzbek government. In your experience, what is most significant about the government’s evolved approach to the cotton issue?
First of all, I would note that the change in attitude of the government toward its critics is significant. In the past, there was severe repression, complete disregard for human rights, and denial of the existence of the problem. Now, members of the government have begun to have meetings with representatives of civil society abroad and inside the country on forced labor in the cotton sector. The Uzbek government has existed for many years in isolation, trying to hide its flaws from the international community. I had to leave my country [editor’s note: in 2008] after spending four months in prison because it was very difficult to tell the truth about the human rights situation in Uzbekistan. Now we have the opportunity to speak the truth and look members of the Uzbek government in the eye. This is good news.
In addition, at the end of last year, we noted some improvements, such as the exemption of students from higher educational institutions from picking cotton. We are talking of at least 200,000 students who, for the first time in many years, did not have their studies disrupted last autumn because of having to pick cotton. The negative impact of the annual mobilization of students to the cotton fields on the education of the Uzbek population and the development of society as a whole has never been studied.
Last year, the government tried not to involve medical and education workers in cotton picking, but this was successful only at the beginning of the collection period, when the number of voluntary pickers was high. In the second half of October, however, we began to record numerous testimonies of nurses and teachers throughout the country that were forced to work or pay for replacement pickers. It is ironic that some teachers said that last year was worse than the previous one, because in the past they were forced to pick cotton at the beginning of the season when it is more profitable, when there is a lot of cotton, when it is warm, which means better conditions for work and earnings.
Another of the key findings, however, underscores the fact that the “centrally-imposed quota system remained a key driver of forced labor across the system and in all regions monitored” by UGF. Can you explain what the components of that quota system are?
The quota — the amount of cotton to be picked — is set in Tashkent and is handed down to the regional and then to the district administrations. Each head of the region or district reports every night on the amount of cotton harvested that day. If the amount of cotton is lower than the set quota, then he is punished or reprimanded. This can mean dismissal from his positions or loss of salary. During the harvest, local media reported almost daily that some manager or other was fired or had lost his salary for “poor organization of the cotton harvest,” which means, in essence, not fulfilling the quota.
By the end of October, the number of volunteers decreases sharply due to cold weather and a decrease in cotton in the fields. However, local officials are obliged to collect what is required by the quota, and that is when they resort to what they have been used to doing all these long years: They force people to pay for pickers or forcibly send people to the fields.
Most of the entrepreneurs we interviewed said that they had already hired or wanted to hire pickers instead of having to go to the fields themselves. There is a logical question: in a country with high unemployment why are there not enough voluntary pickers? Because if you collect less than 25 kg of cotton per day — which is the case during the second phase of the harvest — then there is no financial interest to pick cotton. The earning potential is too low and often does not cover the cost of food and travel. However, the government demands that the cotton is picked literally to the last boll to meet the daily quota, and when there are no volunteers, local authorities turn to those who are afraid of losing their jobs. Therefore, employees of organizations were forced to pick cotton under the threat of dismissal.
The UGF report notes that while in “absolute” numbers the majority of cotton pickers are voluntary, what factors contribute to continued use of forced labor? Has the Uzbek government sought to address these issues?
During two and a half months of cotton picking, Uzbekistan needs 2.6 million seasonal pickers. Although payment has increased, by the middle of October one person can pick no more than 40-50 kg of cotton, which is $6-7 for a whole day’s work. For seasonal workers, this income is insufficient, since the market rate for one employee is at least twice as high. The ratio of voluntary and compulsory collectors depends on time, the amount of cotton in the fields, living conditions for seasonal workers, and the remoteness of farms. For example, the government reported that on November 12, the total amount of cotton harvested across the country was 8,059 tonnes. As of November 12, few if any voluntary pickers remained in the fields, but picking continued. Pickers could pick on average 10-20 kilograms per day, meaning that approximately 400,000-800,000 people picked cotton that day, the significant majority of whom were forced.
During a meeting in Washington, the labor minister of Uzbekistan gave assurances that in cases of forced labor, local leaders were to blame for allegedly not being well prepared for the cotton harvest. Because of this lack of preparation, they were not able to attract a sufficient number of volunteers. However, in the interviews we conducted, local government officials said it is impossible to find volunteers if cotton picking is simply unprofitable for people.
While the Uzbek government has claimed more than 200 cases of officials at various levels being punished for forced labor violations, the details are lacking and it is therefore difficult to follow up on such cases. Why is transparency so important in this regard?
I consider it absolutely necessary to publicize all the details regarding the charges and penalties for the use of forced labor. This is essential for people to be able to trust in the law that forced labor is prohibited not only on paper, but also in reality. Most compulsory pickers whom we interviewed said that they would not complain to their boss about coercion to pick cotton because, firstly, they do not want to spoil relations with him, and secondly, because they understand that this is neither the initiative nor the fault of their immediate superior.
There are no names on the list of the 206 people who were punished for forced labor [editor’s note: only initials appear on the list] — no names of districts and no details of the punishments. Therefore, there really is no way of verifying whether these people were punished. But even if we assume that 206 managers or officials of various ranks forced workers to pick cotton, the logical question is why, if not because they had to carry out orders?
Why are directors of organizations that are not related to agriculture, including schools, kindergartens, hospitals, veterinary clinics, banks, heads of mahallas (neighborhood councils), and youth unions sending their employees to pick cotton instead of telling them to come to their main place of work?
I’m fairly sure I understand why it was decided to keep the names of the punished officials secret. It is because all those charged with using forced labor would rebel against such cynicism. These officials sent their employees to pick cotton because they received an order from the heads of the regions. There is no other reason. Even the submissive Uzbeks would resent such cynicism.
The report starts by highlighting the tragic death of Sohibjon Mutalibov, helping illustrate the human cost of force labor in Uzbekistan. Can you discuss what happened to Mutalibov? Why is it important to share stories like his?
The death of a 24-year-old employee of the Spanish-Uzbek enterprise Ammofos-Maxam is a tragic symbol of the system. Sobhijon Mutalibov was sent to pick cotton against his will. He was on sick leave when he received the order, but still he had to go to the fields. He could not refuse because he was afraid of losing his job and was the only working person in the family.
His mother said she wanted to free her son from picking cotton, but they have no money to pay for a replacement picker. If it had not been such a tragic incident for the family, they would not have complained about the forced mobilization to pick cotton.
Our monitors obtained a document, an order from the head of Uzhimesanoat, according to which 6,000 chemical workers, one of whom was Mutalibov, had to go pick cotton. This case clearly demonstrates that forced labor is not a mistake made by local authorities, it is a state policy. Otherwise, the head of Uzkimyosanoat would have been punished for sending 6,000 workers to pick cotton to the detriment of his own business. Of course, the director will not be punished, since by carrying out his order, he fulfilled the will of the government to help the country harvest cotton.
One group of independent Uzbek human rights activists issued a statement calling for the end of the international boycott of Uzbek cotton. Another group of activists have issued their own statement, arguing that it is too early to rescind the Cotton Pledge. What is your position on these two statements and do you see room for these two apparent sides to move closer together?
I believe that as long as the state-organized system of forced labor persists, it is premature to talk about lifting the boycott. We must make sure that the government carries out the necessary structural reforms in order to remove the root causes of mass forced labor. The activists who believe that it is necessary to keep the boycott in place are well known for regularly monitoring forced labor. Each of them was subjected to various kinds of pressure and persecution by the authorities for exposing forced labor in the past. On two occasions, Elena Urlaeva and Malokhat Eshonkulova were forced to undergo body cavity searches when the police were looking for a flash drive from a camera. They were beaten, detained and called the enemies of the people.
What do you hope to see in the 2019 harvest? What areas do you think the Uzbek government will (or should) focus on now? What do you think those monitoring the Uzbek cotton harvest need to pay the closest attention to?
At the moment, the Uzbek Internet is full of appeals from farmers, who say that their fields, sown with vegetables, are being plowed up and they are being forced to plant cotton. Farmers still have to plant cotton, even if it is not profitable for them. Control over the cotton fields remains with local authorities. The state is not yet ready to give farmers the freedom to choose what to plant on the ground. This does not give hope for improvements, because farmers who plant cotton by order of the authorities, when it is not profitable, do not have the money to provide decent living conditions for pickers, food, and decent pay for the cotton pickers. And it depends on these factors whether volunteers will come to their fields.
What can be done this year? I think that if wages for pickers will be raised to up to 10 cents per kg of cotton from the very beginning of the season (and not at the end, as was the case last year), this could attract more voluntary pickers. Partial mechanization in sparsely populated regions could also help solve the problem of forced labor, however, it is not yet clear how many cotton harvesting machines there are available in the country.
The government should waive the requirement to grow cotton if it is not profitable for farmers. It is simply not rational. I would very much like to write a positive report this year, the main conclusion of which would be that state-organized forced labor no longer exists in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields.