Giving in to sustained international pressure, authoritarian Uzbekistan is opening up its cotton fields to international monitors this fall.
The International Labor Organization has confirmed to EurasiaNet.org that it is sending a mission to monitor the Uzbek cotton harvest, which starts in mid-September. “The ILO will be involved in the monitoring of the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan with the aim of preventing the use of child labor,” spokesman Hans von Rohland confirmed by email on September 12. Monitoring will start “in the next few days.”
Uzbekistan has been the target in recent years of international criticism and a widespread commercial boycott over its reliance on child and forced labor to reap the cash crop. Earlier this year, the US State Department assailed Uzbekistan on the forced labor issue.
The surprise news that an observer mission is being allowed into Uzbekistan – which has always denied the use of systematic state-sponsored child and forced labor, but resisted years of pressure to invite monitors in – has received a cautious welcome from watchdog groups. Nevertheless, labor rights advocates are concerned that the ILO’s mandate will not go far enough to stamp out abuses in the cotton fields.
“We are pleased that this year the International Labor Organization expects to deploy teams to Uzbekistan to monitor during the harvest,” the Cotton Campaign (a coalition lobbying for improved standards in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry) said on September 9.
“We remain concerned that the ILO monitors will be accompanied by representatives of the Government of Uzbekistan and the official state union and employers’ organizations, whose presence will have a chilling effect on Uzbek citizens’ willingness to speak openly with the ILO monitors,” the Cotton Campaign statement added.
Von Rohland, the ILO spokesman, confirmed that the mission “involves cooperation with the Uzbek authorities who have the mandate to deal with child labor issues, as well as with experts from employers’ organizations and trade unions.” Uzbek participants will receive ILO training aimed at “ensuring that the monitoring is credible and reliable,” the representative added. One goal “is increasing awareness and building up the capacity of national actors to ensure the full respect of the provisions of ratified Conventions.”
Uzbekistan has ratified two ILO conventions on child labor, but human rights activists say Tashkent routinely flouts them.
Campaigners are concerned that the observers will not gain unfettered access to the cotton fields. “It is essential that monitoring teams be comprised only of independent observers and not include any Uzbek officials,” Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia Researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch, told EurasiaNet.org.
Access without minders is essential to allow laborers to speak freely, he said, since “the Uzbek government has a well-documented record of suppressing all forms of dissent.”
Activists are also concerned that the ILO’s remit covers child labor, but not forced labor, although Uzbekistan has signed ILO forced labor conventions which would provide a legal basis to monitor it.
“The mission’s mandate should explicitly include forced labor as the entire system of the cotton harvest as it affects millions of Uzbeks rests on a state-sponsored system of coercion,” Swerdlow said.
The ILO representative countered that “the monitoring will look at child labor, including forced child labor, and important aspects of forced labor are bound to come up.”
The Cotton Campaign has already documented cases of forced labor during harvest preparations. “During the spring 2013, Government authorities mobilized children and adults to plough and weed, and authorities beat farmers for planting onions instead of cotton,” it reported. In summer it documented “preparations to coercively mobilize nurses, teachers and other public sector workers to harvest cotton.”
Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest rests on forced labor to help farmers meet government-set quotas to pick the crop. Forced laborers can buy their way out: The going rate this year is 400,000 sums ($200 at the official exchange rate, or five times the minimum wage), according to the Uzmetronom.com website. Cotton pickers are paid a pittance: the rate was 150-200 sums (7-10 cents) per kilo last year, Uzmetronom said.
For Tashkent the crop, dubbed “white gold,” is a cash cow. Uzbekistan is the world’s fifth largest producer and second largest exporter of cotton, data from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) shows. Cotton accounted for 11 percent of Uzbekistan’s export earnings in 2011, according to a report by the Responsible Sourcing Network lobby group.
Uzbekistan has been the target of a sustained campaign over child labor, which two years ago embarrassingly led to Gulnara Karimova, daughter of strongman president Islam Karimov and a fashion designer, being barred from New York Fashion Week.
A pledge organized by the Responsible Sourcing Network “to ensure that forced child and adult labor [in Uzbekistan] does not find its way into our products” has been signed by 131 retailers, including big-name brands like Nike and Adidas Group.
In the face of this barrage of negative publicity, Uzbekistan moved to keep younger children out of the cotton fields last year – “a hopeful reminder that pressure sometimes works, even on governments with records as authoritarian as Tashkent,” Swerdlow said. However, a report by HRW found that this simply shifted the onus to adults and older children.
Campaigners have long accused Western governments of turning a blind eye to Tashkent’s human rights abuses due to strategic considerations. Uzbekistan sits astride the Northern Distribution Network, a key transportation route into and out of Afghanistan which is assuming fresh importance as NATO troops withdraw by the end of 2014.
Nevertheless, activists say Western governments should set aside geopolitics and seize the moment to ramp up pressure on the Uzbek government.
“It is in these [Western] capitals’ long-term interests to drive a harder, more public, bargain with Tashkent over its abysmal record,” said Swerdlow. “Ultimately, an Uzbekistan that continues to be plagued by such a wide spectrum of serious abuses risks a worse, more explosive type of instability for the country, its 30 million people, and the wider region.”
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.