A human rights group has accused the Uzbekistan government of presenting a false face.
The Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF) recently published a report titled “The Cover-Up: Whitewashing Uzbekistan’s White Gold,” which alleged that more than a million people were forced to pick cotton while the country’s government feigned cooperation with the International Labor Organization (ILO) and claimed compliance with the World Bank’s labor laws.
UGF’s report pointed out that the Uzbek government “had a lot at stake,” but still failed to undertake reforms to end its “systematic use of forced labor.”
The World Bank, which had invested more than $500 million in the country’s agricultural sector, stipulated that loans could be stopped and subject to repayment if forced or child labor was detected by contracted monitors from the ILO during the 2015 harvest.
“Instead of good faith efforts to reform, the government appeared to double down on coercion,” the report claimed. “The government’s 2015 ‘re-optimization’ plan for agriculture punished farmers in debt or who failed to meet production quotas by taking back their land.”
Another plan called “Cleaver” ordered bailiffs and police to repossess the farmers’ property, like livestock and tractors, for debts or unfulfilled quotas.
“The government’s procurement price for cotton, set at less than production costs, and system of government-controlled monopolies for agricultural inputs and purchasing, conspired to keep farmers in a cycle of crippling debt,” the report continued.
On the forced labor front, UGF said the government made more than a million people pick cotton for shifts of between 15 and 40 days, working long hours and enduring “abysmal” living conditions, such as overcrowding and insufficient access to safe drinking water and hygiene facilities.
“Through extensive field research throughout 2015, we found that cotton work is not viewed by the vast majority of people as an opportunity to supplement incomes. Instead, the forced labor system of cotton production exacted a significant economic toll on many workers, who earned little or failed to earn enough to cover their costs and justify the associated risks and personal and professional disruptions,” the report charged, noting that teachers and healthcare workers were also forced to work long shift in cotton fields, which left schools and medical facilities understaffed.
The cover up
The human rights organization said that nearly everyone it interviewed during the harvest season revealed they had been warned they could lose their jobs if they refused to pick cotton.
“The climate of fear prevented people from using a complaint hotline run by the Labor Ministry and state-controlled trade union federation, and from speaking openly to the ILO’s monitoring teams, which were comprised of one international member and five officials from government or government-controlled organizations,” the report continued.
According to UGF, the government harassed independent monitors in an attempt to cover up its use of forced labor while making sure it looked like the widespread mobilization was voluntary.
Despite these efforts, however, the ILO concluded that forced labor is still a problem and that significant reform is needed. With that being said, the World Bank has continued to loan money to the Uzbek government.
To that end, UGF has urged the government to end the coercion and corruption that pervades its cotton sector and violates the rights of its citizens. The group has also called on the World Bank, the U.S., the European Union and ILO to hold Tashkent accountable for its international commitments.
In addition, UGF has urged companies that use cotton to pledge “to not knowingly source Uzbek cotton for the manufacturing of any of our products until the government of Uzbekistan ends the practice of forced child and adult labor in its cotton sector.”