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.
Had she known that true stories are sometimes more terrifying than fiction, the little girl may not have pleaded for a bedtime tale.
But in this short film, father yields and tells his daughter of “a rich and powerful man” in a “country far, far away” who grows wealthy off slave labor. Of course, the father is talking about Uzbekistan, and that man is President Islam Karimov: “Schoolchildren have to get on buses and ride for hours to the cotton fields. […] They must pick cotton. All day long. The bag must be filled.”
Teachers, doctors, nurses and children are forced to pick the president’s cotton, the father says. It is a terrifying story, indeed: the thorny plants, the police cordon, schools closed while the children sleep in barns and tents through summer heat and autumn snow. It sounds like a concentration camp.
As her father shuts off the lights, the little girl realizes she is part of this global supply chain: “But the blanket ... and my pajamas … do they also …” – “Yes, they too may come from Uzbekistan. Well, good night,” he says, not so reassuringly.
The video – which ends with the uncomfortable truth, “You most likely sleep in Uzbek cotton” – was released this week by the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights and the Inkota Network. An accompanying article shames Western companies for continuing to purchase Uzbek cotton, companies such as H&M, which “have enormous power to end modern-day slavery,” but don’t.
There are many things the Central Asia countries can’t agree on – but water often tops the list. Now Turkmenistan, which generally allies with inflexible Uzbekistan on water issues, is risking Tashkent’s wrath as it seeks to attract foreign investment to expand and modernize its thirsty cotton industry.
Reuters reports that Textile Industry Minister Saparmyrat Batyrov told an investment conference on October 17 that Ashgabat is seeking more than $1 billion to develop new textile plants by 2016.
Cotton already plays an important role in Turkmenistan’s economy. The country ranks as the world's ninth-largest producer of cotton according to a recent US government estimate.
Turkmenistan's prized “white gold” is used to produce jeans and other cotton products that are exported internationally. The Ashgabat-based Turkmenbashi Textile Complex claims Wal-Mart, Calvin Klein and JC Penney among its clients.
Two issues which blight the cotton industry in Central Asia remain obstacles to these ambitious plans, however -- the abuse of child labor and the region’s scarce water supplies.
Uzbekistan has long faced international scorn for forcing children to pick its cotton. Because Tashkent will not allow international observers to see how its promises of ending the practice are working out, journalists have been left to fill the void.
This year, journalists are finding fewer children in the cotton fields. But conscripted in their place: doctors, nurses and other government employees – along with the same high school and university students as before.
On October 16, the BBC reported that “Tashkent's authorities have required every district to contribute 330 medical staff” to the cotton effort:
Uzbekistan is one of the world's main producers of cotton and the crop is a mainstay of its economy. The government controls production and enforces Soviet-style quotas to get the harvest off the fields as quickly as possible.
A history of using child and forced labour at harvest time has led to a number of retailers - including H&M, Marks and Spencer and Tesco - to pledge to source their cotton from elsewhere.
In response, earlier this year Uzbekistan's Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyayev issued a decree banning children from working in the cotton fields. Yet many adults, including teachers, cleaners and office workers, are still forced to return to the land during October and November.
This year, like last year, medical staff have been ordered to join them. There are reports of patients in towns being turned away because their doctor is "in cotton".
It’s cotton-picking time in Uzbekistan. Each fall, hundreds of thousands of students (from grade school to university) are press-ganged into leaving the classroom and heading to the cotton fields. The government denies it, of course, but it’s basically state policy and has been well documented. Human rights activists have long drawn attention to the situation, urging clothing companies to boycott Uzbek cotton.
Radio Free Europe has an upsetting – though not particularly surprising – related story today. In Uzbekistan’s southern Shahrisabz district, it appears police may have beaten a teenager to death for not picking cotton. The full story:
An Uzbek official says several people have been detained over the death of a teenager who was allegedly beaten by police officers last week.
An official in Uzbekistan's southern Shahrisabz district told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service on condition of anonymity on October 10 that a total of 24 people, including several police officers, have been questioned in connection to the case.
The official said some of them have been detained.
The official also said that authorities haven't yet received forensic examination results to establish the cause of the death of 18-year-old Navruz Islomov, who reportedly died of his injuries in hospital on October 6.
Local residents say police officers beat Islomov after he decided to leave early from the field where he was picking cotton because he was feeling unwell.
It’s September and that means it’s cotton-harvesting time in Uzbekistan. As the kids return to school (often via the cotton fields), Tashkent has issued its annual denial that they are forced to pick the “white gold.” But forget trying to independently confirm there is no forced child labor in Uzbekistan.
The government continues to refuse to allow observers from the International Labor Organization, a branch of the United Nations that monitors international labor standards, to monitor the cotton harvest, the Cotton Campaign reports. [Editor’s Note: The Cotton Campaign receives support from the Open Society Foundations; EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of OSF.]
Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev announced in August that it is forbidden to use children to harvest cotton and that schoolchildren shouldn’t even be near the fields during harvest season. However, UzNews and Radio Free Europe’s Uzbek Service note that Mirziyoyev’s decree is a yearly song and dance, and that as early as September 5, students from Jizzakh, a town in Uzbekistan’s northeast, were rounded up into buses and sent off to pick cotton in fields about 70 kilometers away.
A boycott of Uzbek cotton by leading Western clothing retailers may be nipping at Tashkent’s pockets, though Asian buyers seem happy to pick up the slack.
The Wall Street Journal reports that at Tashkent’s annual showpiece international cotton fair last week, “not a single Western buyer signed a contract for Uzbekistan’s cotton.”
Last month over 60 multinationals pledged “to not knowingly source Uzbek cotton for the manufacturing of any of our products until the Government of Uzbekistan ends the practice of forced child labor in its cotton sector.”
As EurasiaNet.org reported in September, Tashkent is coming under unprecedented pressure to end the use of child labor, which has been documented by human rights campaigners again during this year’s cotton harvest.
Tashkent firmly denies using child labor. The WSJ quoted an unnamed government official as pointing to a legal ban on children under 16 working at all, and quoted him as saying that if kids are out doing the backbreaking work of picking cotton, “it wasn't because they were forced to do so but because they wanted to.”
A recent panel discussion at the Open Society Institute highlighted the ongoing problem of forced child labor in Uzbekistan and the efforts of non-governmental groups to enlist governments and international institutions in the cause of persuading Uzbekistan to end the practice. (EurasiaNet is funded by the Open Society Foundations under the auspices of its Central Eurasia Project--ed.)
Daniel Stevens of the Centre of Contemporary Central Asia and Caucacus, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London spoke about his Centre's new study of the Uzbek cotton industry What Has Changed? Progress in Eliminating the Use of Forced Child Labour in the Cotton Harvests of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan,. Researchers found that systematic and institutionalized forms of forced child persist. The practice is difficult to eradicate because the reforms intended to transition Uzbekistan to private agriculture have largely been superficial, as the government still maintains a monopoly on export licenses and sets cotton quotas and prices, and farmers become dependent on local administrators for supplies. With adults migrating outside of Uzbekistan for better-paid labor, the incentive for cash-strapped farmers is to use child labor, and local administrators tasked with meeting government quotas exploit children in the harvest.
The survey indicates that despite government commitments to end the practice of exploiting child labor, children are still commanded to work in the fields by government and school authorities. The 31-page report illustrates the institutionalized nature of forced child labor and outlines the motivations that keep the system in place, thereby establishing the Uzbek government's accountability for ongoing violations of the conventions of the International Labor Organization which it signed in 2009.
The SOAS report found that "the data clearly demonstrates that child participation in the cotton harvest is extremely widespread and that there has been no fundamental change from earlier years." Most children worked for two months, although in an echo of the previous year's attempt to limit the practice, first older children of 15-16 years of age were mobilized, then younger ones aged 12-14, and children even as young as seven were found contributing on weekends, says SOAS.
An Uzbek human rights group concerned about the World Bank's failure to concede state control of agriculture and the extent of child labor in Uzbekistan's cotton industry has received an acknowledgement from the Bank about its concerns.
Ezgulik (Goodness), a leading civil society organization based in Tashkent with chapters in other cities, issued a report circulated via e-mail in December 2010, documenting what it saw as severe flaws in the Bank's assessments in providing the second phase of a $67.9 million loan to the government of President Islam Karimov in 2008. The non-governmental organization called for a re-evaulation of the Uzbek leadership's claims of farm reform and adherence to international agreements to prevent exploitation of children, the independent online news service fergananews.com reported.
Ezgulik's 13-page critique summarizes years of monitoring the rights of farmers and the use of child labor in Uzbekistan. The Uzbek group decided to issue an open letter and report to the Bank following unsuccessful attempts to meet with Shigeo Katsu, former vice president of the Bank's Europe and Central Asia division, who visited Uzbekistan last year to attend a summit of the Asian Development Bank
Underscoring the role of the government in violating International Labor Conventions signed in 1999, Ezgulik notes: "Our research has shown that the use of forced child labour in this sector is widespread. According to our observations, children are sent to the cotton fields to pick cotton not by their parents, but by their school administrations at the directive of the district and provincial authorities".