International pressure can affect the abysmal human rights situation in Uzbekistan, it turns out: After years of withering criticism, Tashkent is deploying fewer children into its cotton fields and relying increasingly on teenagers and adults – including public service workers threatened with loss of employment and loss of benefits such as pensions – Human Rights Watch says.
The “abuses persist,” however, in all of Uzbekistan’s provinces, says the New York-based watchdog in a report released late Friday night.
For the 2012 harvest, the Uzbek government forced over a million of its own citizens, children and adults – including its teachers, doctors, and nurses – to harvest cotton in abusive conditions on threat of punishment, Human Rights Watch found. The authorities harassed local activists and journalists who tried to report on the issue. In 2011, Uzbekistan was the world’s fifth largest exporter of cotton.
“The issue here is forced labor, plain and simple” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Forcing more older children and adults to work in the cotton fields to replace some younger children, does not change the fact that Uzbekistan is forcing a million of its people to labor in these fields involuntarily every year at harvest season.”
It is widely acknowledged that the Uzbek government has long relied on forced labor, including of children as young as nine, to pick cotton produced for export. In 2012, the burden was shifted somewhat to older children and adults, according to cotton workers, independent activists, and local rights groups across Uzbekistan who spoke with Human Rights Watch.
Workers receive little if any pay and are forced to meet quotas. In some cases, those who failed to meet quotas were fined. Throughout the season, workers “lived in filthy conditions, contracted illnesses, suffered serious injuries, and worked from early morning until evening.”
Tashkent goes to great lengths to stop word from getting out, refusing to allow international monitors and arresting activists and journalists. In September, for example, authorities arrested and beat activist Uktam Pardaev in Jizzakh, then held him incommunicado for 15 days apparently to stop him from reporting during the height of the harvest.
The use of forced labor is organized at the highest levels of Uzbekistan’s government.
The children and adults were forced to work from early September until the beginning of November, to meet cotton quotas set for each province. Regional authorities, police, and school administrators, reporting to the prime minister and other cabinet ministers, transported children and adults by bus to the country’s cotton fields, where those far from their homes were assigned temporary housing. The workers picked cotton for weeks at a time, and were not free to leave.
Children as young as nine are still being forced to pick cotton. The only major difference this year, it seems, is that “to compensate for the loss of younger children, the government forced larger numbers of adults and children, ages fifteen to seventeen, to work in the harvest.”