Prominent human rights activist Elena Urlayeva was detained and abused by police while monitoring the Uzbek government’s use of forced labor in its springtime cotton planting effort on May 31, she has told EurasiaNet.org.
Officers subjected Urlayeva, 58, to physical and sexual abuse during her 11 hours in police custody and confiscated a camera on which she had recorded evidence of forced labor, she said by telephone from Tashkent on June 3.
“With some other activists, I was conducting monitoring of forced labor involving medics, teachers, and public-sector workers,” Urlayeva, who heads the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, explained.
The arrest took place when she was interviewing and photographing some doctors early in the morning on May 31 at a gathering point in the small town of Chinaz (60 kilometers southwest of Tashkent) from which the authorities were dispatching healthcare staff to the cotton fields.
When she refused to hand over her camera to officials, police took her to the precinct where “they started to use violence, they hit me on the head.”
Urlayeva accused officers of subjecting her to vaginal and rectal internal examinations (claiming they were searching for a hidden USB flash drive) and other sexually humiliating procedures, including photographing her nude. She was released without charge.
She has filed complaints with the Interior Ministry, the prosecutor’s office, and police authorities over her detention and treatment in custody.
Urlayeva said she believed her arrest “was an attempt to intimidate me … and to put a stop to my activity” monitoring the use of forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest.
The administration of strongman President Islam Karimov regularly comes under fire over the use of forced and child labor to reap the cash crop that fills up state coffers.
The World Bank has declined a request by human rights campaigners to investigate whether its agricultural projects contribute to the use of forced and child labor in Uzbekistan. Yet it has acknowledged that farms benefiting from its assistance might be forcing adults and children to work against their will.
There is a “residual possibility that there can be child and/or forced labor on farms receiving project support,” the World Bank’s Inspection Panel (which handles complaints about projects) said in a ruling delivered in December and approved by the board on January 23. “Hence, there was a plausibility that the project could contribute to perpetuating the harm of child and forced labor.”
The oversight body declined to launch an official probe, however, on the grounds that measures are being taken to tackle forced and child labor in Uzbekistan.
“This decision calls into question the Inspection Panel’s commitment to stand with communities to end abuse,” said Jessica Evans of Human Rights Watch.
The ruling is “shocking,” added Umida Niyazova, director of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, in a statement e-mailed by the Cotton Campaign.
“To millions of victims of forced labor in Uzbekistan, the bank has said that despite recognizing the relationship between their plight and its loans, it is not worth investigating,” Niyazova added. “Disturbingly, the bank’s decision is also a message to the Uzbek government that it can continue its forced labor system.”
Niyazova was one of the campaigners who asked for a probe in 2013, amid concerns that the World Bank’s $108-billion Second Rural Enterprise Support Project was effectively contributing to government-sponsored forced and child labor.
Roughly one out of every five adults in Uzbekistan was coerced into picking cotton during the just-completed harvest season, according to a November 14 statement distributed by the Cotton Campaign, an activist coalition seeking to put an end to the government’s use of forced labor.
Cotton Campaign researchers estimate that about 4 million adults, many of them state employees, were pressed into gathering cotton this harvest season in Uzbekistan. According to the CIA’s most recent estimate, Uzbekistan has an overall population of almost 29 million, a quarter of which is under the age of 14. An additional 21 percent is between the ages of 15 and 24. Those estimates, along with the Cotton Campaign figure, would suggest that at least 20 percent of the over-18 population spent time in the cotton fields this fall against their will.
The Uzbek government has faced international condemnation for its widespread use of forced child labor in cotton harvesting. In recent years, however, authorities have shifted the burden, reducing the number of children compelled to leave school and pick cotton, and replacing them with fresh legions of adults.
“Reducing the number of children in the fields by forcing even more adults to work against their will is not sufficient. The government needs to dismantle the forced labor system,” a Cotton Campaign statement quoted Umida Niyazova, the director of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, which prepared a preliminary report on the harvest.
Uzbekistan’s practice of sending forced laborers to pick the cotton harvest causes a furor abroad every year. But now there are rumblings of discontent from within the country.
National University students have taken the unusual step of publicly complaining about being forced to help with the harvest, publishing an open letter to the prime minister and law-enforcement agencies on the Dunyo Uzbeklari (World of Uzbeks) opposition website.
Third-year male journalism students were ordered to the cotton fields by the rector and faculty deacon, says the letter. It is addressed to Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev; the prosecutor’s office; the National Security Service (SNB); the Higher Education Ministry; and the university rector, Mirzo Mukhamedov.
“Surely the legislation of Uzbekistan does not mention the responsibility of students for taking part in the cotton harvest?” the outraged students (who remained anonymous, no doubt fearing repercussions) ask. “Of course not!”
Students who do not wish to pick cotton could cough up 300,000 sums to buy themselves out, the letter said. That is equivalent to around $125 at the official exchange rate, or two months’ worth of a student’s living grant.
Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest relies on forced labor to help farmers meet government-set quotas.
In 2012, Tashkent – facing widespread international pressure over its widely documented use of child labor to harvest its main cash crop – moved to take younger children out of the cotton fields. However, human rights groups have reported that this merely shifted the burden of forced labor onto older children (including students) and adults. Tashkent denies using forced labor at all.
With the arrival of November, the serfs trickle home from Turkmenistan’s cotton fields. But a culture of state employees being forced to labor in menial jobs continues throughout the year, says an annual monitoring report. As they wait for the fields to bloom again with “white gold,” low-skilled municipal workers such as janitors and security guards are obliged to do free housekeeping for Turkmen bureaucrats, and to travel to faraway cities to participate in cleanups for the state, the report alleges.
Turkmenistan’s Central Asian neighbor Uzbekistan is usually the focus of international flak for mobilizing its citizens – notably students – to harvest cotton each fall. But totalitarian Turkmenistan, which produces more cotton per person than Uzbekistan, is just as keen on exploiting its bloated public sector for field hands, according to the October 14 briefing, published by Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN), a service run by Turkmen exiles who partner with Amnesty International and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.
Drawing on domestic accounts, the second annual report provides an important insight into Turkmenistan’s labor market. It pays particular attention to Turkmenistan’s low-paid state employees who have limited means to defend their rights in a country where de facto unemployment is high and cowed government workers can be replaced easily.
Uzbekistan has made “no advancement” in eliminating the worst forms of child labor, the US Department of Labor has found, despite Tashkent’s efforts to remove younger children from the cotton fields.
The judgment will come as a blow to the administration of strongman President Islam Karimov, which – under sustained international pressure – says it has banned children from picking cotton and last year invited the International Labor Organization (ILO) in to monitor the issue.
“Notwithstanding initiatives to reduce child labor, Uzbekistan has received this [“no advancement”] assessment based on the government's continued complicity in the use of forced child labor,” the Labor Department’s annual Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, released October 8, state.
“Although the government continues to publicly deny the use of forced labor, including of children, in the cotton harvest, information indicates that children continue to be required to engage in the worst forms of child labor in cotton production,” it continued.
The findings acknowledged that Tashkent had by and large ensured that children under 15 “were able to continue to attend school during the harvest season,” but said local officials continued shutting down colleges and lyceums, “mobilizing children ages 15 to 17 to pick cotton to meet the government-mandated harvest quotas.”
In 2012, Tashkent – facing widespread international pressure over its widely documented use of child labor to harvest its main cash crop – moved to take younger children out of the cotton fields. However, human rights groups reported that this merely shifted the burden of forced labor onto older children and adults, while Tashkent denies using forced labor at all.
Rights activists are embracing an economic argument against Uzbekistan’s ongoing use of forced labor in the cotton sector: a reliance on slaves is far more inefficient than using wage labor.
Representatives of the advocacy group Anti-Slavery International organized a small protest outside the Uzbek Embassy in London on September 30, during which they attempted to deliver a petition signed by over 2,700 people that calls for an end to the used of forced labor.
“Year on year hundreds of thousands of Uzbek citizens are forced by their own government to pick cotton for the benefit of a narrow political elite,” Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International told Eurasianet.org.
The petition is addressed to Uzbek President Islam Karimov. It states that the Uzbek government’s continuing reliance on forced labor “condemns Uzbekistan to a cycle of under-development as generations are denied education, health-care and decent work opportunities.”
“The time to end state-orchestrated, modern-day slavery in Uzbekistan is now,” it adds. The document specifically calls on the state to raise the price paid for raw cotton, something that would encourage farmers to offer higher wages to laborers. Higher wages would, in turn, discourage the use of forced labor and lead to greater efficiencies in the sector, as workers would have a greater incentive to pick more cotton, faster.
When you think of cotton and forced labor in Central Asia, you probably think of Uzbekistan. But a new report offers a reminder that Turkmenistan continues to force thousands of citizens into the cotton fields each autumn against their will.
On January 21, Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN) released its assessment of the 2013 cotton harvest (by email): “Tens of thousands” of Turkmen, many of them public sector employees, were forced into the fields during the harvest. "Forced labor is still widely practiced throughout the country," the report – authored in collaboration with the Cotton Campaign, an international advocacy group – said.
The findings support reporting last autumn from Radio Free Europe’s Turkmen Service, which said that teachers were shepherding their students to the cotton fields on an "unprecedented" scale, with girls as young as 10 spotted picking cotton.
ATN describes a feudal system wherein government officials lease cotton plots from the state and then force their underlings to perform the manual labor. Like in neighboring Uzbekistan, the farmers (in this case the officials) then sell their harvest to the government at low prices. The government then sells the raw cotton abroad at market prices, says ATN:
We have information that shows that in the majority of cases, when the regional employees of the social sector are used as cheap laborers, the land is owned not by local farmers, but by high-ranking state or regional officials. These officials rent out land under the names of their wives, children, other family members, etc., however they do absolutely nothing by way of harvesting cotton on their land; many of these officials do not even live on this land or even in the region where the land is leased. [...]
Eleven citizens lost their lives as a result of the forced-labor system this year. The tragic losses included Tursunali Sadikov, a 63-year-old farmer who died of a heart attack after being beaten by a Department of Internal Affairs official, and Amirbek Rakhmatov, a six-year-old schoolboy who accompanied his mother to the cotton fields, napped in a trailer, and suffocated when cotton was loaded on top of him.
“It is the largest number of people who have died in a year, as far as I know,” Matt Fischer-Daly of the Cotton Campaign told the Toronto Star. “There have been tragedies but [I’ve] never seen a year with so many deaths.”
Though there were fewer young children mobilized than in years past, authorities “systematically” coerced high school students, university students, and adults into the fields, the reports says. They are part of an opaque chain of transactions that concludes with authorities buying cotton from farmers at artificially low prices and selling it abroad at a huge markup for hard currency. Researchers found that students were threatened with expulsion if they did not comply and adults told they would be fired if they refused.
Uzbekistan stands to earn $1 billion annually exporting cotton, an industry that has planted the Central Asian country prominently on the inaugural Global Slavery Index published by an Australian watchdog this week.
Citing officials, Uzreport news agency reported on October 17 that at the ninth annual Cotton and Textile Fair in Tashkent on October 16 and 17, Uzbekistan signed contracts to export 680,000 metric tons of cotton fiber and textile products worth $1 billion a year.
In awkward timing, while Uzreport was hailing the cotton contracts as "a solid basis for future long-term, sustainable and mutually beneficial cooperation between Uzbekistan and foreign countries," the Brisbane-based Walk Free Foundation published its inaugural Global Slavery Index.
During the annual cotton harvest, Uzbekistan “is the country with the second highest prevalence of modern slavery (after Mauritania) in the world,” the accompanying report said. The index ranked Uzbekistan 47th globally overall.
Uzbekistan relies on forced labor to pick the cotton, which is then purchased from farmers at artificially low prices and sold abroad for hard currency. The State Department said this year that Tashkent “subjects its citizens to forced labor through implementation of state policy.”