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Major progress on forced labour and child labour in Uzbekistan cotton fields

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Most forced labour has been eliminated from Uzbekistan’s cotton fields, say monitors from the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Ninety-three per cent of those involved in the 2018 cotton harvest worked voluntarily, The systematic recruitment of students, teachers, doctors and nurses has ended.

However, according to the monitors, the recruitment of staff from state institutions, agencies and enterprises still occurs in some places.

Child labour, which was previously a serious problem during harvest time, is no longer a major concern.

“In many ways, the 2018 cotton harvest was a real test for Uzbekistan,” said Beate Andrees, Chief of the ILO’s Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work Branch. “A year ago at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, President Mirziyoyev committed his government to working with the ILO and the World Bank to eradicate child and forced labour in the harvest. This political commitment was followed by a number of structural changes and reforms in recruitment practices. The ILO monitors have observed that these measures are working and people on the ground can feel a real difference.”

The cotton harvest in Uzbekistan is the world’s largest recruitment operation, with some 2.6 million people temporarily picking cotton every year. The land allocated for cotton growing has been reduced but the crop still provides an important source of income, especially for women in rural areas.

Third-Party Monitoring

The ILO has been monitoring the cotton harvest for child labour since 2013, through an agreement with the Uzbek government, employers and trade unions. In 2015, as part of an agreement with the World Bank, it began monitoring the use of forced and child labour during the harvest.

ILO experts carried out 11,000 unaccompanied and unannounced interviews with cotton pickers and others involved in the harvest in all provinces of the country, to create a picture of the situation on the ground.

This year human rights activists were involved in a number of field interviews, awareness raising activities and reviews of cases gathered through a government hotline set up to hear complaints and questions.

No government representatives were involved in the monitoring. Moreover, to ensure the highest possible level of integrity, GPS coordinates were generated randomly and only given to the international ILO experts just before their departure to the next destination.

While the overwhelming majority of cotton pickers worked voluntarily in 2018, some pickers from state institutions, enterprises and agencies reported that they would have preferred not to have participated in the harvest but did not want trouble from their employer. Others in this category reported that they picked cotton voluntarily because of improved rates and bonuses.

Government reforms

As part of a number of reforms, the Uzbek government increased wages and introduced a differentiated pay scale so that pickers are paid more per kilogramme of cotton towards the end of the harvest, when conditions are less favorable and there is less cotton to pick. The wage structure was further refined in 2018 to encourage mobility by rewarding those who were willing to pick in less densely populated districts with lower yields.

The government hotlines dealt with more than 2,500 cases in 2018. In a number of cases local hokims (mayors) and heads of institutions were disciplined for violating people’s labour rights. The disciplinary action included dismissals, demotions and fines. Uzbekistan has begun processing raw cotton and is positioning itself as a manufacturer of textiles and garments.

“These are positive developments” said Beate Andrees, “Establishing full-time, decent jobs in manufacturing would certainly be helpful to reduce the seasonal peaks in labour demand which often fuel unfair recruitment practices.”

“We have seen in many places that international garment companies can play a key role in promoting good labour standards by insisting on high standards and by implementing international best practices. There is no reason why this should not take place in Uzbekistan as well.”

“There is still work to do but Uzbekistan has demonstrated that it deserves full support from the international community, including governments, investors, the garment and textile industry, and civil society in realizing the next phase of its ambitious reform agenda. The ILO stands ready to facilitate this process.”

The ILO has been implementing a comprehensive Decent Work Country Programme with Uzbekistan  since 2014. As well as the cotton industry, it deals with employment and recruitment policies, labour inspection and administration, labour law, occupational safety and health, social dialogue and strengthening trade unions and employers’ organizations.

The ILO TPM Project is funded by a multi-donor trust fund with major contributions from the European Union, Switzerland and the United States.

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Human Rights

COVID-19 stoking xenophobia, hate and exclusion, minority rights expert warns

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A woman wears a medical mask in China. (file photo) World Bank/Curt Carnemark

Combatting the COVID-19 pandemic must also include stamping out what one independent human rights expert has called the “darker sides” of the disease: verbal and physical attacks against Chinese and other minority communities, and excluding them from access to healthcare.

COVID-19 is not just a health issue; it can also be a virus that exacerbates xenophobia, hate and exclusion,” said Fernand de Varennes, the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues, in a statement issued on Monday.

He reported that politicians and groups are exploiting fears surrounding the disease to scapegoat certain communities, leading to a rise in violence against them.

This has included physical attacks against Chinese and other Asians, hate speech blaming Roma and Hispanics for the spread of the virus, and calls by some political leaders for migrants to be denied access to medical services.

Safeguard human rights

Mr. de Varennes said countries need to show that the human rights of all people must be protected, particularly the most vulnerable and marginalized.

“Combatting the epidemic requires tackling its darker sides. Firm actions by States and all of us to safeguard the human rights of the most vulnerable and marginalised, including minorities, indigenous communities and migrants, are urgent and necessary”, he stressed.

More than 200 countries have reported cases of the new coronavirus disease, which first emerged in Wuhan, China, last December.

There were 638,146 cases globally as of Sunday, and more than 30,000 deaths, according to data from the World Health Organization (WHO).

“The coronavirus outbreak endangers the health of all of us, with no distinction as to language, religion or ethnicity. But some are more vulnerable than others”, said Mr. de Varennes.

He urged people everywhere to resist the rise in discriminatory and hate speech against Asian and other minorities by using the hashtag #IAmNotAVirus on social media.

Protect people in prisons, detention centres

Meanwhile, authorities are being urged to consider measures to mitigate COVID-19 risk in places such as prisons, immigration detention facilities, closed refugee camps and psychiatric institutions.

The UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture issued the advice on Monday, in a call to protect people deprived of their liberty during the pandemic.

“Governments have to take precautionary measures necessary to prevent the spread of infection, and to implement emergency measures to ensure detainees have access to appropriate levels of health care and to maintain contact with families and the outside world”, said Sir Malcolm Evans, the Committee Chairperson.

Measures include reducing prison populations by allowing early or temporary release of low-risk offenders, and extending the use of bail for all but the most serious cases.

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Coronavirus pandemic threatens to plunge millions in Arab region into poverty and food insecurity

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Food insecurity is on the rise in Gaza as the COVID-19 pandemic threatens a steep spike in poverty throughout the Arab region. WFP/Wissam Nassar

COVID-19 will be responsible for pushing a further 8.3 million people in the Arab region into poverty, according to a new policy brief issued on Wednesday by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA).

And the pandemic could also bump up the number of undernourished people there by some two million. 

Current estimates show that there are some 101.4 million in the region who already live in poverty, according to official criteria, and around 52 million undernourished.

“The consequences of this crisis will be particularly severe on vulnerable groups”, said ESCWA Executive Secretary, Rola Dashti, pointing especially to “women and young adults, and those working in the informal sector who have no access to social protection and unemployment insurance”. 

Because of a high dependence on food imports within the Arab world, a disruption in global medical supplies to deal with the pandemic, will also have a severe impact on food security there, says ESCWA. 

Meanwhile, in addition to food loss and waste, worth around $60 billion annually across the region, the brief highlighted other likely economic losses, due to knock-on effects of the virus.

What action can be taken to lessen the impact?

According to ESCWA, reducing food loss and waste by 50 per cent would not only increase household income by some $20 billion, but also significantly improve food availability, reduce food imports and improve the balance of trade throughout the region.

Ms. Dashti encouraged Arab Governments to ensure “a swift emergency response to protect their people from falling into poverty and food insecurity owing to the impact of COVID-19”. 

Last week, she called for the establishment of a regional social solidarity fund to care for vulnerable countries. 

“The regional emergency response must support national efforts and mobilize resources and expertise to protect the poor and vulnerable”, concluded the Executive Secretary. 

At the same time, Khalid Abu-Ismail, Senior Economist at ESCWA, highlighted four measures that can be taken to mitigate the crisis, beginning with extending credit to small businesses and enterprises.

He also stressed the importance of building on social networks and expanding on cash and other transfers to the poor and vulnerable and encouraged countries to give “more access to the food insecure population” through the existing voucher system.
Mr. Abu-Ismail also highlighted the importance of other initiatives such as Arab Food Security Emergency Funds. 

As one of five UN regional commissions, ESCWA supports inclusive and sustainable economic and social development in Arab States and works on enhancing regional integration. 

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Economic sanctions should be lifted to prevent hunger crises in countries hit by COVID-19

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As the world exhibits new bonds of solidarity in response to the coronavirus pandemic, it is a matter of “humanitarian and practical urgency to lift unilateral economic sanctions immediately,” to prevent hunger crises in pandemic-hit countries, a UN human rights expert, said on Tuesday.  

The continued imposition of such measures on Syria, Venezuela, Iran, Cuba and Zimbabwe in particular, severely undermines the fundamental right to sufficient and adequate food,Hilal Elver, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, stressed.

History has shown that unilateral economic sanctions generally have dramatic and detrimental impacts on economic, social and cultural rights, she recalled. “As a result, the wellbeing of the civilian populations becomes severely compromised.”

The Special Rapporteur also urged the international community to pay particular attention to the situation of civilians trapped in conflict settings, and notably those already experiencing acute violations of their rights to food, such as in Yemen, South Sudan, Gaza, Syria and in refugee camps worldwide.

“If the international community is serious about the fight against COVID-19 and the eradication of food and nutrition insecurity, States need to refrain at all times from direct and indirect interference with access to food,” she assured.

The Special Rapporteurs are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation. Their positions are honorary, and they are not paid for their work.

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