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Systemic forced labour and child labour has come to an end in Uzbek cotton

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

The report, compiled for the World Bank, shows that one in eight people of working age in Uzbekistan participated in the cotton harvest. This makes it the world’s largest recruitment effort. Sixty-five percent of pickers were women, and the vast majority were from rural areas.

Systematic child labour has been eradicated and child labour is no longer a major concern.

When I was a child, we unfortunately missed a lot of school classes because of the cotton harvest.” said Dilshoda Shodmonova from Chircik near Tashkent. “Today, thanks to the reforms, my own daughter can go to school uninterrupted and get her education. This encourages me to continue my work as a labour rights activist.

The country is making significant progress on fundamental labour rights in the cotton fields. More than 96 per cent of workers in the 2020 cotton harvest worked freely and the systematic recruitment of students, teachers, doctors and nurses has completely stopped.

In 2020, the share of cotton pickers that experienced coercion was 33 percent lower than in 2019. However, there were still cases at the local level of people being threatened with loss of privileges or rights if they declined an invitation to pick cotton.

The ILO monitoring had a particular focus on the pandemic. Many Uzbek migrant workers returned to Uzbekistan as a result of the pandemic which resulted in more people being available for the cotton harvest.

Pickers demonstrated a high level of awareness about coronavirus, but many shared their concerns about the disease. One third of cotton pickers said that face masks and hand washing facilities were available. Two thirds of pickers said that they could always maintain social distancing during lunchtime or breaks.

The main motivation for Uzbeks to pick cotton was the opportunity to earn money. On average, each picker participated in the harvest for twenty-one days and earned 1.54 million soums (equivalent to US$150). This is higher than the average salary of a teacher in Uzbekistan.

The cotton harvest accounted for a crucial part of most pickers’ livelihood. Sixty percent of pickers said that the 2020 cotton harvest was their only source of cash income this year.

The Uzbek government has significantly increased wages since 2017 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 favourable and there is less cotton to pick. This has led to a significant drop in the prevalence of forced labour.

“Forced labour is not only socially and morally wrong, but is a serious violation of human rights and a criminal offence in Uzbekistan.” said Tanzila Narbaeva, Chairperson of the Uzbek Senate and the National Commission on Forced Labour and Human Trafficking. “In order to change behaviour, you need to change the way people think. We make it happen by working together as legislators, government officials, employers, trade unions, and civil society activists.”

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 2020, 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 undertaken their monitoring without interference from the government or local officials.

Uzbekistan is replacing the old Soviet legacy state production system with a market-based model, and with the necessary safeguards in place, including fair recruitment practices and adequate wages.

The government’s strategy is to move Uzbekistan up the value chain and position the country as an exporter of textiles and garments instead of raw cotton. This has the potential to create millions of higher paid jobs and generate significant export earnings.

“These reforms should continue to be supported by the international community,” said Jonas Astrup, Chief Technical Advisor for the ILO Third-Party Monitoring Project (TPM). “Trade and investment decisions by responsible international companies are likely to contribute to the further abolition of the legacies of the centrally planned economy. They can also have a positive impact on compliance with international labour standards. ILO suggests that responsible sourcing of Uzbek cotton, textiles and garments should be facilitated and encouraged. ILO stands ready to pilot tools and mechanisms in Uzbekistan to enable international brands and retailers to make informed business decisions.”

The report, entitled 2020 third-party monitoring of child labour and forced labour  during the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan , is based on more than 9,000 unaccompanied and unannounced interviews with a representative sample of the country’s 1.8 million cotton pickers.

The ILO TPM Project is funded by a multi-donor trust fund established by the World Bank, with major contributions by the European Union, the United States, Switzerland and the German development agency GIZ.

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Human Rights

Migrants left stranded and without assistance by COVID-19 lockdowns

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At least 30,000 migrants are stranded at borders in West Africa according to the UN. IOM/Monica Chiriac

Travel restrictions during the COVID pandemic have been particularly hard on refugees and migrants who move out of necessity, stranding millions from home, the UN migration agency, IOM, said on Thursday. 

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the first year of the pandemic saw more than 111,000 travel restrictions and border closures around the world at their peak in December.  

These measures “have thwarted many people’s ability to pursue migration as a tool to escape conflict, economic collapse, environmental disaster and other crises”, IOM maintained. 

In mid-July, nearly three million people were stranded, sometimes without access to consular assistance, nor the means to meet their basic needs.  

In Panama, the UN agency said that thousands were cut off in the jungle while attempting to travel north to the United States; in Lebanon, migrant workers were affected significantly by the August 2020 explosion in Beirut and the subsequent surge of COVID-19 cases. 

Business as usual 

Border closures also prevented displaced people from seeking refuge, IOM maintained, but not business travellers, who “have continued to move fairly freely”, including through agreed ‘green lanes’, such as the one between Singapore and Malaysia.  

By contrast, those who moved out of necessity – such as migrant workers and refugees – have had to absorb expensive quarantine and self-isolation costs, IOM said, noting that in the first half of 2020, asylum applications fell by one-third, compared to the same period a year earlier.  

Unequal restrictions 

As the COVID crisis continues, this distinction between those who can move and those who cannot, will likely become even more pronounced, IOM said, “between those with the resources and opportunities to move freely, and those whose movement is severely restricted by COVID-19-related or pre-existing travel and visa restrictions and limited resources”. 

This inequality is even more likely if travel is allowed for anyone who has been vaccinated or tested negative for COVID-19, or for those with access to digital health records – an impossibility for many migrants. 

Health risks 

Frontier lockdowns also reduced options for those living in overcrowded camps with high coronavirus infection rates in Bangladesh and Greece, IOM’s report indicated.  

In South America, meanwhile, many displaced Venezuelans in Colombia, Peru, Chile, Ecuador and Brazil, lost their livelihoods and some have sought to return home – including by enlisting the services of smugglers. 

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Clashes in Myanmar displace thousands

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As of the start of 2021, about one million people are in need of humanitarian aid and protection in Myanmar. Pictured here, an IDP camp in Myanmar’s Kachin province. (file photo) UNICEF/Minzayar Oo

Clashes between the Myanmar security forces and regional armed groups, which have involved military airstrikes, have reportedly claimed the lives of at least 17 civilians in several parts of the country, the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on Wednesday. 

In a humanitarian update, issued on Tuesday, the Office also noted unconfirmed reports of several thousand people fleeing the hostilities in recent days in the Kayin and Bago regions, in central Myanmar, near Yangon. A medical clinic is also reported to have been damaged in gunfire in a township in Mon state, also in the central part of the country. 

An estimated 7,100 civilians are now internally displaced in the two regions due to indiscriminative attacks by the Myanmar Armed Forces (MAF), and the Karen National Union (KNU), as well as growing insecurity since December 2020, according to the update. 

UNHCR [the UN refugee agency] is engaging with partners on the ground to explore possibilities to deliver critical humanitarian assistance and support to the displaced. A further 3,848 people in Kayin State have crossed the border to Thailand since 27 March, due to fears of further hostilities in the area”, OCHA said. 

The majority are believed to have returned to Myanmar with Thai authorities saying that 1,167  remain in Thailand as of 1 April, the Office added. 

‘Deep concern’ over continued impact of the crisis 

Meanwhile, the wider political crisis across Myanmar continues to hit life hard across the southeast Asian nation. 

The UN human rights office (OHCHR) has received credible reports of at least 568 women, children and men, have been killed since the military coup on 1 February, though there are fears that total is likely much higher. 

Concerns have also been raised over the impact on Myanmar’s health and education systems, as well as the long-term effects of the violence on children

The longer the current situation of widespread violence continuous, the more it will contribute to a continuous state of distress and toxic stress for children, which can have a lifelong impact on their mental and physical health, senior UN officials warned last week. 

Since 1 February, there have been at least 28 attacks against hospitals and health personnel and seven attacks against schools and school personnel, UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric told reporters at a press briefing at the UN Headquarters, in New York, on Tuesday. 

“Attacks against health volunteers and against ambulances are preventing life-saving help from reaching civilians wounded by security forces,” he added. 

UN agencies have also reported reported sharp increases in food and fuel prices in many parts of Myanmar, on the back of supply chain and market disruptions. Humanitarians worry that if the price trends continue, they will “severely undermine” the ability of the poorest and most vulnerable to put enough food on the family table.

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Guterres: Use COVID-19 recovery to make inclusion ‘a reality’

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Building a more inclusive and accessible world that recognizes the contributions of all people, including persons with disabilities must be a “key goal” as countries work to recover from COVID-19 pandemic, United Nations Secretary-General said on Friday, commemorating World Autism Awareness Day. 

“The crisis has created new obstacles and challenges. But efforts to reignite the global economy offer an opportunity to reimagine the workplace to make diversity, inclusion and equity a reality”, Secretary-General António Guterres said

“Recovery is also a chance to rethink our systems of education and training to ensure that persons with autism are afforded opportunities for realizing their potential”, he added. 

Breaking ‘old habits’ crucial 

Mr. Guterres also emphasized that breaking old habits will be crucial. For persons with autism, he added, access to decent work on an equal basis requires creating an enabling environment, along with reasonable accommodations. 

“To truly leave no one behind in pursuit of the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development, we must realize the rights of all persons with disabilities, including persons with autism, ensuring their full participation in social, cultural and economic life”, he said. 

“Let us work together with all persons with disabilities and their representative organizations to find innovative solutions to recover better and build a better world for all.” 

Inequalities worsened by COVID-19

According to the UN World Health Organization (WHO), one in 160 children has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD begins in childhood and tends to persist into adolescence and adulthood. 

Intervention during early childhood is important to promote the optimal development and well-being of persons with an ASD, WHO added, emphasizing the importance of monitoring of child development as part of routine maternal and child health care. 

While some individuals with ASD are able to live independently, others have severe disabilities and require life-long care and support. Persons with an ASD are also often subject to stigma and discrimination, including unjust deprivation of health care, education, protection under law, and opportunities to engage and participate in their communities.

The World Day

The World Autism Awareness Day, to be commemorated annually on 2 April, was established in December 2007 by the UN General Assembly, which affirmed that “ensuring and promoting the full realization of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all persons with disabilities is critical to achieving internationally agreed development goals”. 

The General Assembly also highlighted the importance of early diagnosis and appropriate research and interventions for the growth and development of the individual, and called for efforts to raise awareness throughout society, including at the family level, regarding children with autism. 

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