Forced and child labour in Uzbek cotton fields continues to fall

The systematic and systemic use of child labour and forced labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry has come to an end, according to a new International Labour Organization (ILO) report .

The report, compiled for the World Bank, shows that the country is making significant progress on fundamental labour rights in the cotton fields. Systematic child labour has been eradicated and child labour is no longer a major concern. More than 94 per cent of workers in the 2019 cotton harvest worked freely and the systematic recruitment of students, teachers, doctors and nurses has completely stopped.

In 2019, 102,000 pickers were recorded as being in forced labour during the harvest – this number was 40 per cent lower than in 2018. However, the involuntary recruitment of staff from state institutions, agencies and enterprises still occurs at the local level.

Cotton pickers’ wages have increased in line with ILO and World Bank recommendations, and the ILO is recommending further increases and improvements in working conditions to attract more pickers. In 2019, a majority of cotton pickers said that working conditions (e.g. transport, food, hygiene, access to water, etc,) had improved compared to the previous year.

The ILO began monitoring the cotton harvest for child labour in 2013. In 2015, as part of an agreement with the World Bank, this work was extended to cover both forced labour and child labour. In 2019, for the first time the ILO Third-Party Monitoring (TPM) was carried out by independent Uzbek civil society activists using ILO methodology and training. The activists reported that they completed their monitoring without interference.

“This year we observed several new positive developments,” said Elena Urlaeva, a human rights activist and monitor. “The Ministry of Employment and Labour Relations encouraged civil society to be critical. We were provided with official ID badges that we could show to local officials in case we were being asked questions. This was very helpful. Another positive thing was that our human rights activist group increased. Several young people joined us this year and it is encouraging.”

“Forced labour is completely unacceptable and has no place in modern Uzbekistan,” said Tanzila Narbaeva, Chairwoman of the Uzbek Senate. “We still have work to do but we are encouraged that the reforms are showing such positive results. 2020 is an important year for us as we continue to modernize our agricultural systems and strengthen our labour market governance. We have also recently introduced criminalization of forced labour, which we hope will serve as an effective deterrent. We look forward to continue our cooperation with the ILO, the World Bank and civil society to further sustain progress in this area.”

Government law enforcement efforts also intensified in 2019. The number of labour inspectors doubled from 200 to 400, and 1,282 forced labour cases were investigated. 259 government officials, heads of organizations and managers were punished for forced labour violations during the 2019 harvest, mostly with fines, which also rose 10-fold compared to 2018. In January 2020, the Uzbek President, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, signed new legislation criminalizing forced labour.

“These reforms should be supported by the international community,” said Heinz Koller, ILO Assistant Director-General and Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia. “Responsible international investment can encourage the move away from the old, centrally planned, economic system and compliance with international labour standards. I also commend the government and social partners for the implementation of the decent work country programme. The ILO will continue providing technical assistance in 2020 and beyond.”

The report, Third-party monitoring of measures against child labour and forced labour during the 2019 cotton harvest in Uzbekistan  is based on more than 7,000 unaccompanied and unannounced interviews with a representative sample of the country’s 1.75 million cotton pickers.