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Uzbek Cotton Fields Eliminate “Most” Forced Labor, ILO Says

International Labor Organization (ILO) monitors have reported that most forced labor has been eliminated from Uzbekistan’s cotton fields and that child labor, once a serious problem during harvest time, is no longer a concern.

An ILO report to the World Bank in February said systematic use of child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest came to an end during the 2017 harvest. This had followed protests and boycotts of Uzbek cotton from international brands.

The ILO said 93 percent of those involved in the 2018 cotton harvest worked voluntarily, and that systematic recruitment of students, teachers, doctors and nurses has ended. However, monitors reported that recruitment of staff from state institutions, agencies and enterprises still occurs in some places.

To this point, Nate Herman, senior vice president of supply chain at the American Apparel & Footwear Association, said, “Any forced labor in the supply chain is unacceptable… We acknowledge and applaud that some small positive steps have been made in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan. However, we have concerns with the ILO’s conclusions.”

Herman said the fact that at least 7 percent of the workforce totaling approximately 180,000 individuals “is doing so against their will is not something to be celebrated,” adding “It is time that the Uzbek government address the underlying issues in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry that lead to this exploitative practice.”

Beate Andrees, chief of the ILO’s Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work Branch., said, “In many ways, the 2018 cotton harvest was a real test for Uzbekistan. A year ago at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, president Mirziyoyev committed his government to working with the ILO and the World Bank to eradicate child and forced labor in the harvest. This political commitment was followed by a number of structural changes and reforms in recruitment practices. The ILO monitors have observed that these measures are working and people on the ground can feel a real difference.”

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The cotton harvest in Uzbekistan is considered the world’s largest recruitment operation, with roughly 2.6 million people temporarily picking cotton every year, according to the ILO. The land allocated for cotton growing has been reduced, but the crop still provides an important source of income, especially for women in rural areas.

The ILO has been monitoring the cotton harvest for child labor since 2013 through an agreement with the Uzbek government, employers and trade unions. In 2015, as part of an agreement with the World Bank, it began monitoring the use of forced and child labor during the harvest.

ILO experts carried out 11,000 unaccompanied and unannounced interviews with cotton pickers and others involved in the harvest in all provinces of the country to get a full understanding of the situation on the ground. This year, human rights activists were involved in a number of field interviews, awareness-raising activities and reviews of cases gathered through a government hotline set up to hear complaints and questions, the ILO noted.

No government representatives were involved in the monitoring and to ensure the highest possible level of integrity, GPS coordinates for the farms were generated randomly and only given to the international ILO experts just before their departure to the next destination.

While the vast majority of cotton pickers worked voluntarily in 2018, some from state institutions, enterprises and agencies reported that they would have preferred not to participate in the harvest, but did not want trouble from their employer. Others in this category reported that they picked cotton voluntarily because of improved rates and bonuses.

As part of a number of reforms, the Uzbek government increased wages and introduced a differentiated pay scale so pickers are paid more toward the end of the harvest, when conditions are less favorable. The wage structure was updated this year to encourage mobility by rewarding those who were willing to pick in less densely populated districts with lower yields.

The government hotlines dealt with more than 2,500 cases in 2018. In a number of cases, local officials were disciplined for violating people’s labor rights. The disciplinary action included dismissals, demotions and fines.

Uzbekistan has also started processing raw cotton and is positioning itself as a manufacturer of textiles and garments.

“These are positive developments” Andrees said. “Establishing full-time, decent jobs in manufacturing would certainly be helpful to reduce the seasonal peaks in labor demand which often fuel unfair recruitment practices. We have seen in many places that international garment companies can play a key role in promoting good labor standards by insisting on high standards and by implementing international best practices. There is no reason why this should not take place in Uzbekistan, as well.”

Andrees said there is still work to do, but “Uzbekistan has demonstrated it deserves full support from the international community, including governments, investors, the garment and textile industry, and civil society in realizing the next phase of its ambitious reform agenda. The ILO stands ready to facilitate this process.”

The ILO has been implementing a comprehensive Decent Work Country Program with Uzbekistan since 2014. In addition to the cotton industry, it deals with employment and recruitment policies, labor inspection and administration, labor law, occupational safety and health, social dialogue, and strengthening trade unions and employers’ organizations.