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Uzbekistan Abolishes State-Sponsored Cotton System That Encouraged Forced Labor

Moving a step closer to eradicating forced labor in the cultivation of cotton in Uzbekistan, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has signed a decree ordering the abolition of the state-order system for cotton crops.

This is meant to put a final end to the long-time arrangement that encouraged forced labor, particularly in the seasonal harvesting of cotton from the field. Under the decree signed March 6, the government will cancel quotas for the production and sale of cotton, leaving farmers who rent land from the state free to cultivate alternative and more lucrative crops.

A report last month from the International Labor Organization (ILO) said 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.

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 were 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.

The new decree will establish the state-set quota for grain 25 percent lower and, according to Eurasianet, is meant to encourage the country’s large agriculture sector toward more market-based rules. Uzbekistan is projected to be the sixth-largest producer of cotton in 2019-2020, with 3.5 million bales, according to data from Cotton Incorporated.

In a tweet Friday, Astrup described the decree as an “historic development” for Uzbekistan.

“We’ve known since early Feb that Pres Mirziyoyev intended to end cotton quotas for the 2020 harvest—now it’s official!” U.S. Ambassador to Uzbekistan Daniel Rosenblum wrote in a Twitter post, which Astrup retweeted. “Kudos to #Uzbekistan for working to eliminate root causes of forced labor. The USA will continue to support in any way we can.”