The use of child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest is becoming rarer, but there were indications that adults are being press-ganged into service this year, the World Bank has said in a report.
While offering hope of improvement, the report published on November 20 evinced disquiet about the harassment of independent harvest monitors — a sure indication authorities remain nervous about damage incurred to the country’s cotton public image in recent years.
The findings were based on observations by the International Labor Organization (ILO), which was this year asked to broaden its remit by checking for signs of forced labor.
Claims that child labor is on the wane echoes conclusions from independent campaigners since 2012, when the government banned the practice following a punishing cotton boycott by leading western brands.
“Authorities have taken a range of measures to reduce the incidence of child labor and make it socially unacceptable,” the World Bank said.
The assessment is broadly shared.
Apparent efforts by Uzbekistan to reduce reliance on underage workers prompted the U.S. State Department to promote Uzbekistan from Tier 3 to Tier 2 on its watch list in its 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report.
The burden of meeting harvest quotas has instead shifted to adults, who are often recruited against their will.
“Large numbers of citizens seem to be willing recruits and see the harvest as an opportunity. But organized recruitment of large numbers of people in such a short period of time carries certain risks linked to workers’ rights, which need further work, and certain indicators of forced labor have been observed,” the World Bank said.
The report said government pledges not to draw labor from the healthcare and education sector — which activists have complained devastates the quality of public services — made an impact, although strong doubts still remain whether forced labor is still in use. Healthcare facilities and schools appeared to function as usual, but the same is not the case for colleges and universities whose students took part in the harvest.
The World Bank praised Tashkent’s creation of a mechanism for the public to register complaints, but few appear to have made recourse to the system, which has yet to establish a track record of impartiality.
Vocal critics of the harvest system, meanwhile, have found themselves targets of systematic harassment.
There have been widespread reports this year of intimidation of civil society campaigners seeking to document abuses in the cotton harvest, from arrests – multiple times, in the case of activists like Elena Urlaeva – to threats and harassment. In October, the office of Dmitriy Tikhonov, who has been detained and physically assaulted during his attempts to monitor the harvest this autumn, was burned down, destroying evidence he had gathered of forced labor.
The World Bank said it was heartened by the government’s commitment to adopt measures over the findings in the report, as stated in an official resolution issued on November 16.
Following controversy over allegations that child or forced labor was being used in World Bank-sponsored agricultural projects, the report concluded that there was no conclusive information to that effect.
It noted concerns, however, about the candidness of interviewees and the extent to which students deployed in project areas were coming forward of their own will.
Earlier this year the World Bank rejected a bid by human rights campaigners for a formal probe into the use of child and forced labor on farms benefiting from its projects, despite finding that there was a “residual possibility that there can be child and/or forced labor on farms receiving project support.”