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Forced and Child Labor Has Become Less Problematic in Uzbek Cotton Fields, ILO Says

The use of child or forced labor in Uzbekistan cotton fields has dramatically improved from what it was a decade ago, when widespread instances forced Western brands to ban cotton from the country.

According to a new International Labor Organization (ILO) report, more than 94 percent of workers in the 2019 cotton harvest in Uzbekistan worked freely, and the systematic recruitment of students, teachers, doctors and nurses has ceased. The report, compiled for the World Bank, shows the country is making significant progress on fundamental labor rights in the cotton fields.

For the first time the ILO Third-Party Monitoring (TPM) was carried out by independent Uzbek civil society activists using ILO methodology and training. The activists reported being able to complete their monitoring without interference.

Last year, 102,000 pickers were recorded as forced labor workers during the harvest–a 40 percent decline from 2018.

At the local level, however, there are still some instances of involuntary recruitment of staff from state institutions, agencies and enterprises, or “systematic forced labor,” the report said. Jonas Astrup, chief technical advisor for the TPM Project, told Sourcing Journal systematic forced labor describes a situation where a government is intentionally imposing compulsory labor on the population in a methodical and organized manner according to official policies, instructions, plans or legislation. While 94.1 percent of cotton pickers in last year’s harvest were voluntary, 5.9 percent experienced forced labor. These cases, according to Astrup, include perceived threats and request for money or replacement pickers where an individual declines an invitation to participate in the harvest.

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When looking at wages, the TPM observed a 20 percent increase in pay and an improvement in working conditions. Cotton pickers’ wages have increased in line with ILO and World Bank recommendations, and the ILO is recommending further increases and improvements in working conditions to attract more pickers. In 2019, a majority of cotton pickers said working conditions in areas including transportation, food, hygiene and access to water had improved compared to the previous year.

“The ILO monitoring of the 2019 harvest clearly found that not only is there strong political commitment in Uzbekistan to eradicate forced labor, but there is also legislation providing significantly increased fines and criminal liability for forced labor violations,” Astrup said. “These laws are enforced and some 259 government officials, heads of organizations and managers were punished during the harvest.” Last month, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev signed new legislation criminalizing forced labor.

Local independent human rights activists carried out the cotton harvest monitoring in accordance with ILO methodology and approved by an Independent Ethics Review Board. The group, which saw its numbers swell last year, conducted more than 7,000 interviews during the harvest and tracked 1,500 cases submitted to the government feedback mechanism. Government law enforcement efforts also intensified in 2019. The number of labor inspectors doubled to 400, and 1,282 forced labor cases were investigated.

“Forced labor is never acceptable and it remains a top priority for the government to fully eradicate involuntary recruitment,” Astrup said. “However, the number needs to be contextualized in light of the fact that the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan remains one of the largest recruitment efforts in the world with 1.75 million people picking cotton for approximately three weeks every year.”

With more investment in the country and its raw material supply, the ILO believes fair labor practices can sustain in Uzbekistan.

“Responsible international investment can encourage the move away from the old, centrally planned, economic system and compliance with international labor standards,” said Heinz Koller, ILO assistant director-general and regional director for Europe and Central Asia. “I also commend the government and social partners for the implementation of the decent work country program. The ILO will continue providing technical assistance in 2020 and beyond.”