There is no area of public life in Uzbekistan that can remain untouched by cotton.
With the end of September approaching, the harvesting season is in full swing and all available hands are being enlisted to the cause: teachers, students, doctors, scientists and conscripts.
And on Friday, imams all across the country used prayer day sermons to urge parishioners to go out into the fields as well. The imam at a mosque in the Kashakadarya region, Bobohon Abdurahimov, said the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan distributed specific instructions on appeals to get the faithful to participate in the gathering of raw cotton.
“We explain to the faithful … that the gathering of cotton is a major state-level concern. Cotton is our national pride, that is why need an all-nation khashar (voluntary collective works drive) — a joint effort for the good of society. Muslims will please God if they help the state and farmers,” Abdurahimov told EurasiaNet.org.
At the largest mosques in Tashkent, worshippers can contribute to the harvest by providing donations, which are then used to provide for some of the cotton-pickers’ needs.
Asked if the sermons have any impact, Abdurahimov said that different people respond in different ways. Some limit themselves to making financial donations to help the cause, while others send one of their relatives to the fields. And then there are some very passive Muslims who take no heed whatsoever, he said.
According to Uzbekistan’s constitution, religious institutions are separate from the state, but in reality, the activities of faith organizations are strictly monitored and directed by security organs.
Three people in Uzbekistan’s Sirdarya region have been sentenced to 12 years in jail for committing fraud in the cotton business, according to a report by Russian state news agency Sputnik later relayed by local media.
Other people connected to the crime received less severe penalties, the agency reported.
Corruption in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry, whose profitability is known to be underpinned by a vast amount of rights abuses, is something that is widely suspected but little investigated or reported. Emergence of this relatively small case of malfeasance has shed some light on the irregularities that prevail in the industry.
“Sirdarya regional court ruled that the criminal group caused major financial damage to the government and embezzled more than 7 billion sum ($1.1 million) from the region’s cotton sector,” Sputnik reported, citing an unnamed courts official.
Sirdarya region neighbors the Tashkent region to the southwest and is around one hour’s drive from the capital.
Investigations into the fraudulent scheme concerned activities between July 2011 to May 2013 at a factory that collected and paid for deliveries of raw cotton from farmers.
“The criminals not only appropriated money provided by the government for the purchase of cotton, but they also in fact engaged in theft of this valuable commodity, selling it on the side,” Sputnik cited its source as saying.
While Sputnik did not dwell on the particulars of the embezzlement scheme, some insight was provided by an Uzbek journalist who has written extensively on the cotton industry for local outlets.
Campaigners have handed a petition to the World Bank urging it to suspend funding for agricultural projects in Uzbekistan until Tashkent roots out forced labor in the cotton harvest.
A petition addressed to World Bank President Jim Yong Kim and signed by 140,000 people was delivered to the institution’s Washington HQ on March 9, said the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of advocacy groups.
On the same day, one human rights group released a damning report documenting allegedly systematic use of forced labor during last year’s cotton harvest.
“To harvest cotton, officials once again forced more than a million people, including students, teachers, doctors, nurses, and employees of government agencies and private businesses to the cotton fields, against their will and under threat of penalty, especially losing their jobs,” the report by the Berlin-based Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF) stated.
The World Bank press office told EurasiaNet.org by e-mail that the organization “does not condone forced labor in any form and takes seriously the reports of such practices in the cotton production system of Uzbekistan.”
“Over the past 2-3 years, the Bank has maintained an intensive dialogue with the Government of Uzbekistan on issues related to child and forced labor in the cotton sector. During this period, the authorities introduced changes to the national legal framework related to the protection of the rights of workers and the prohibitions on child and forced labor,” the World Bank said.
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.
A leading campaigner in the effort to document Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest, which has been blighted by claims of rights abuses, has found his office destroyed by an unexplained fire.
Activists monitoring the harvest have faced an unprecedented wave of intimidation from authorities this year, despite mounting international scrutiny of the sector.
Dmitriy Tikhonov, who has reported cases of forced labor in cotton fields to international organizations, found his office in his home town, Angren, in charred ruins when he returned there on October 29, following an absence.
Files detailing the abuses he had documented were missing. Tikhonov did find a metal box container still intact in the ruins, but the hard drive that was stored inside had disappeared.
“The fire is a horrific escalation of the intimidation campaign against Dmitry and all Uzbek human rights defenders throughout 2015, aimed at preventing them from reporting on forced labor in the cotton sector,” Umida Niyazova, director of the Berlin-based Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, said in remarks quoted by the Cotton Campaign, an international advocacy group.
The fire appears to have taken place on October 20, which was the same day that Tikhonov was presented with criminal charges of disorderly conduct. The charges were brought after three members of a local neighborhood committee accused him of using foul language while asking them questions about cotton harvest mobilization.
Shifty U.S. envoys have been spotted lurking in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan digging for dirt on a competitor whose cheap crop could squeeze out America’s own exports.
At least that’s the yarn some media in Uzbekistan are spinning.
The U.S. Embassy has rubbished the claim.
In a report on October 16, website 12news.uz alleged that three suspicious elements were recently seen in the fields in Qashqadaryo Region, posing as journalists and officials from Uzbekistan’s Foreign Ministry.
“The ‘Uzbekistan Foreign Ministry staff and journalists’ turned out to be diplomats from the US Embassy in Tashkent, who had specially gone to the remote region to find some kind of problems which it would be possible to trumpet to the entire word as ‘the grossest cases of violations of human rights and restrictions on freedoms,’” the website wrote.
12news.uz speculated that the fact-finding team was motivated by a desire to thwart the rising sales of “comparatively cheap cotton from Uzbekistan” on world markets, which it said “in no way suits American farmers.”
The embassy was categorical in its denial.
“The allegations in this story are inaccurate, and we strongly disagree with the characterizations contained in the article,” spokeswoman Natella Svistunova told EurasiaNet.org by e-mail.
Pointing out that diplomats are free to travel under the Vienna Convention, Svistunova said embassy staff had traveled to various parts of Uzbekistan, carrying identification.
Svistunova said embassy staff “always correctly represent themselves, when asked.”
One of the embassy’s goals “is to better understand changing practices in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest,” Svistunova said.
When it comes to human rights and Uzbekistan, the news is usually bad.
The U.S. State Department’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report, published on July 27, does not buck that trend, but it is notable in recognizing what it says are efforts by Tashkent to reduce forced child labor.
That has prompted the American government to promote Uzbekistan from Tier 3 to Tier 2 on its watch list — a move that has stunned the Cotton Campaign advocacy group.
Cotton Campaign, which has as it aim the end of forced child and adult labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry, says the upgrade lets Tashkent off the hook.
“The Uzbek government continues to operate one of the largest state-orchestrated systems of forced labor in the world,” the group said in a statement.
Nadejda Ataeva, president at the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, said in comments carried on the Cotton Campaign statement, that the United States “has effectively sent a message to Uzbek authorities that forced labor of millions of its citizens is cost-free.”
The U.S. State Department paints a grim picture, but offers some ostensibly consolatory remarks in passing:
“Government-compelled forced labor of adults remains endemic during the annual cotton harvest. In 2014, despite a central government-decree banning all participation of those under age 18 in the cotton harvest, local officials mobilized children in some districts. In addition, across much of the country, third-year college and lyceum students continued to be mobilized, an unknown number of whom were not yet 18 years old.”
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.