A new report from the International Labor Organization has found that Uzbekistan is making great strides toward ending the systemic use of forced labor in its cotton industry, one of the world’s largest.
A significant proportion of the country’s population—last year, about one in eight adults—take part in the annual cotton harvest.
The Uzbek government has long come under international criticism for conscripting both adults and children to meet its cotton quotas.
According to the report, 94 percent of the 1.75 million people that worked in the country’s cotton fields in 2019 did so voluntarily. 102,000 were found to be victims of forced labor, 40 percent less than the previous year.
With further details of better working conditions, higher salaries, more labor inspectors, and more stringent criminalization of forced labor, the ILO claimed that the systematic use of child labor and forced labor had effectively “come to an end.”
The Thomson Reuters Foundation reports:
“Forced labour is completely unacceptable and has no place in modern Uzbekistan,” said Tanzila Narbaeva, chairwoman of the Uzbek Senate, in a statement.
“We still have work to do, but we are encouraged that the reforms are showing such positive results.”
However, human rights groups including Freedom United are cautioning against undue celebration of the news.
Our own executive director, Joanna Ewart-James, has pointed out that with 100,000 still forcibly mobilized last year—which could be a conservative estimate—the problem is far from solved, and that widespread coercion is still being used.
The Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF) explained that while the recruitment of students, teachers, and health workers had been eliminated, other public servants had been enlisted instead.
With their job, benefits, or status often at stake, UGF argues that many of these officials are still effectively coerced into working.
UGF further reported that since government cotton quotas remain in place, local officials known as hokims were still resorting to forced labor when faced with shortages of willing workers.
These findings suggest that while it seems Uzbekistan’s leaders have honored their recent promises to phase out direct government involvement in the harvest, the country has much work to do to ensure that forced labor does not simply shift into new, undocumented forms.
These efforts will be crucial for Uzbekistan to fulfill its commitments as part of the Forced Labour Protocol (P29), which will come into force in September this year.
“The means of coercion are still in place and must be dismantled throughout the industry if forced labor is to be the exception and effectively abolished,” said Joanna Ewart-James.
“Rather than rush to call it the end, this report is a basis for us to push for the progress to be built upon so that sustainable change is secured.”