Cotton Coercion - Child Labour is the Tip of the Iceberg in Uzbekistan - Labour is Not a Commodity

By Elizabeth Dia, Intern, International Labor Rights Forum

Uzbekistan, a country now infamous for its use of forced child labor, also coerces adults to labor alongside the children. If the “tip of the forced labor iceberg” is an estimated 1.5 to 2 million children taking part in the cotton harvest, then adult forced laborers are the victims hidden under the surface. The Uzbek government, through local officials, requires all citizens to help pick cotton by creating quotas for farmers to meet. To ensure these quotas are met the government uses forced labor, as defined by International Labor Organization, or “…work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.” The penalties against those who refuse to pick cotton include: beatings, a loss of pension/maternity payments, a loss of utilities such as electricity, and threats of unemployment.

No Exceptions (unless you are willing to pay)

Under the Soviet-style command economy in Uzbekistan, everyone has to pick cotton. Uznews.net reports that even the sick and breast-feeding mothers are forced to labor in the cotton fields. Factory workers, policeman, and solders are among those coerced into picking cotton. According to EurAsia.net, “Doctors, teachers, even an entire soccer team have been sent to pick cotton…” Teachers bring student as young as elementary school age to labor in the fields with them. In one area of Uzbekistan, all markets were closed, but merchants continued business in the streets by hiring laborers to go in their stead to the cotton fields. Local officials said that “all newlyweds and their guests…must collect cotton”. When people are unable to meet their daily quotas, they are forced to work at night or pay to buy the cotton from another source.

Family Farms? Presidential Decree 3077

The forced laborers of Uzbekistan do not work on their own farms, except for those few who are granted tenancy rights from the government. This number is shrinking because of Presidential decree no. 3077. The decree was described as “an exercise in arbitrary land redistribution, in which local political leaders reward friends, family, and those offering bribes”. Others say the decree is an excuse to take the land from smaller farmers. The supposed purpose of the decree is to “optimize” farm production by having several smaller plots of land controlled by a single person. The decree actually takes land from families who need it and increases unemployment rates, before making family members forced laborers during the cotton harvest. Children, who accompany adult forced laborers to the cotton fields, become victims of forced labor themselves. Because of this, it is obvious student laborers do not pick cotton to help their families, but to avoid harsh penalties from the government.

International Awareness and Actions

Trade Unions, NGOs, and the business community have banded together to help end these practices. Understanding forced labor in Uzbekistan is more pertinent than ever, because of a meeting of the International Labor Organization Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations is taking place in Geneva during the cotton harvest. Uzbekistan continues to violate ILO Convention 105 on Abolition of Forced Labor, which Uzbekistan ratified in 1997.

At a meeting of the Committee of Experts in 2011, Uzbekistan and Convention 105 were discussed. Numerous groups and workers’ organizations sent letters to the government of Uzbekistan about child labor before the meeting. The Uzbek government repeated earlier statements denying the use of forced labor, stating that forced labor is illegal and most of the country’s cotton is are private undertakings. The Committee of Experts requested that the Uzbek government explain if and how university students and public employees participate in the cotton harvest, in addition to relevant court decisions and proceedings against employers for the use of forced labor.

Despite communication from the government of Uzbekistan denying forced labor, there are no reports on prosecutions for those responsible for forced labor. The ILO “strongly encourages the Government (of Uzbekistan) to accept a high-level ILO tripartite observer mission…” to be independent verification of what happens during the cotton harvest. The International Trade Union Confederation “concluded that, even if forced labour in the cotton fields was not the result of state policy, the Government (of Uzbekistan) still violated the Convention by failing to ensure its effective observance” according to an ILO report. Though, multiple NGOs and anecdotal evidence shows this is not the case. The ITUC’s conclusion is helpful considering the Uzbek government’s stance on the matter, because the government should take action regardless. With the support of the international community, Uzbekistan needs to “take effective measures to secure the immediate and complete abolition of forced or compulsory labour…” as they promised.