The Cotton Campaign announced today that Uzbekistan has finally excused students and some health and education workers from the cotton fields, all of them forced laborers who had been picking cotton since the season began. Still, other workers remain there involuntarily or are pressured to pay for someone to replace them.
“On September 21, 2017, Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov ordered officials to recall students and education and medical workers, who had been picking cotton under threat of penalty since the harvest began on September 10, despite an August degree banning recruiting these workers. Students began to leave various regions for home later on September 21.”
Today, Umida Niyazova, who is director of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, explained, “Bringing students home from the fields is a significant change and shows the importance of political will in ending forced labor. Now it is crucial for Uzbekistan’s international partners to urge the government to allow all involuntary workers to return from the fields without penalty, including being required to pay for someone else to work in their place, and to monitor and publicly report on findings.”
The Uzbek government has for many years forced its citizens–educators, health staff, students, and those receiving public benefits–to pick cotton in support of the state-run industry. The laborers worked involuntarily and were threatened with penalties and loss of their jobs and benefits if they refused.
In September, for the first time before an international audience, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev spoke to the UN General Assembly. The speech followed a decade of protests and pressure by the Cotton Campaign, their allies, governments, and other stakeholders.
The Cotton Campaign believes that such developments now offer hope that the country is finally moving forward to end the long practice of massive forced labor during the cotton season, but that this “should not obscure the persistence of forced labor in the current cotton harvest or the continuing threats against activists trying to monitor the situation. The Uzbek government should follow these steps with meaningful reforms to end this repressive and exploitative form of production once and for all.”