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Despite Progress, Forced Labor Persists in Uzbekistan’s Cotton Fields

Labor activists are casting doubt on Uzbekistan’s assertions that forced labor has all but been eliminated from its cotton fields.

Despite plaudits from the International Labour Organization and the U.S. government’s recent removal of Uzbek-grown cotton from its official list of products produced with child labor, systemic forced labor of adults continues to be a significant problem for adults, according to the Uzbek-German Forum on Human Rights (UGF), which published a report last week based on 70 interviews and 300 field visits to more than 100 farms.

Some “encouraging signs” of progress aside, the 2018 harvest revealed key challenges that must be overcome before the Central Asian nation ends the practice for good. The Uzbek government’s centralized production system, coupled with yawning labor gaps in low-population districts, for instance, have continued to drive the use of forced labor.

Umida Niyazova, director of UGF, says that part the problem lies with the harvest quotas set by the Uzbek government. Charged with fulfilling these quotas—or risk dismissal or other penalties—regional officials frequently order various public and private firms to conscript their employees.

“UGF documented evidence that systemic forced labor persists because the structural causes remain in place,” Niyazova said in a statement. “The top-down quota system in particular led officials to send people to pick cotton.”

Documents and testimony obtained by UGF show that thousands of employees from enterprises and public-sector agencies, including at least seven state-owned enterprises, law enforcement, military, and emergency services, were told to head for the fields or pay for replacement pickers.

“I documented hundreds of employees of various enterprises picking cotton until the end of November,” said Malohat Eshonkulova, an independent journalist and labor rights monitor. “For example, a coal miner from Angren told me that 320 employees of O’zbekko’mir, the national coal enterprise, were forcibly sent to pick cotton and would lose their jobs if they refused.”

While the government didn’t mobilize university students to pick cotton for the first time—an “important positive step”—UBF stresses that efforts to strengthen human-rights protections must continue even in the face of reform efforts such as privatization of the cotton sector and diversification of agriculture.

“We urge the government to accelerate reforms to build on its successes to finally bring an end to these practices,” Niyazova said.