Changing the Pattern, but Not the Policy: Uzbekistan Shifts the Demographics of Forced Labor

For eight years, the Open Society Foundations—along with retailers, trade unions, parliamentarians, and activists on three continents—have supported a campaign to end the forced labor of adults and children in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry. Every year, the government of Uzbekistan forcibly mobilizes hundreds of thousands of its citizens to harvest cotton. The cotton crop is not only a main source of income for the ruling elite but its proceeds also go to support the country’s massive, and repressive, government. 

Previously, children as young as nine were forced to work in the fields. Last summer, however, the Prime Minister announced that schoolchildren would not participate in the 2012 cotton harvest. The Uzbek government—as well as some Western governments interested in maintaining good relations with the country—pointed to this change as evidence of the sincere intent by the authorities in Tashkent to address the forced labor problem. Unfortunately, the situation is by no means so clear cut.

While the use of younger children as forced labor declined in 2012, the overall scale of the problem did not change. The government simply shifted the demographics, sending older children (ages 15–18), university students, and adults, including employees of state organizations, military servicemen, and urban residents—mainly women—to work in the fields. This included people working in foreign-invested companies such as General Motors Uzbekistan, the Uzbek-American joint venture that runs an automobile assembly plant in Asaka, Andijan province. 

Although schoolchildren were now exempt from the harvest, schoolteachers were not. Medical personnel were also sent to the fields. The government even went so far as to chase down citizens who due to health or family circumstances could not leave home to pick cotton, such as single mothers, obliging them to pay an informal “penalty” of around $200. This amount, well above average monthly salary in Uzbekistan, is difficult for most ordinary Uzbeks to pay. Workers who were unable to fulfil the daily quota were obliged to pay others to pick the missing amount. Companies were forced to pay salaries for workers sent to pick cotton—for which they received no additional remuneration—a significant burden on employers’ budgets.

The decision not to include younger schoolchildren was evidently a response to international pressure and expanding calls for a boycott of Uzbek cotton that could jeopardize both the country’s reputation and its potential future profits. For the time being, the government of Uzbekistan has managed to avoid a real boycott of its cotton export. Yet government reactions this autumn reveal that it takes seriously the risks of losing Western markets, especially European as the Europe-based cotton traders become less eager to deal with Uzbekistan and look to minimize their imports from this country.

Official actions this harvest also reveal the need for the government to show political will. The government implemented the order forbidding the mobilization of schoolchildren almost as soon as it was announced. The speedy implementation of this order also exposed the groundlessness of past justifications presented earlier by the Uzbek government to its critics that child labor was not state-sponsored, but voluntary or freely chosen by parents and farmers. By its action, the government has shown a de facto recognition of a problem it refused to acknowledge. Yet if the Uzbek government is really committed to solving this problem, it needs to begin by addressing its root causes. By shifting the demographics, Tashkent has to date fallen back on the false solution of continued forced labor of adults and older children, choosing to extort its own population. It remains unwilling to reform the cotton industry and abolish the command system in which the central government decides what farmers should plant on their land, what prices they should receive for their cotton crop, and which suppliers and buyers can participate in the cotton economy. It is this command system and the lack of freedoms for cotton farmers that create the need for forced labor.

Unless this root cause is addressed, each year hundreds of thousands of Uzbeks will be forced to labor in the cotton fields. To ensure that in future children, their parents and teachers, public sector workers and farmers are freed from this obligation, agricultural reform should once again be on the government’s agenda, as well as that of its negotiating partners, notably western countries and international financial institutions, such as the World Bank. As a first step, the Uzbek government needs to meet the demands of the cotton campaign and its growing number of supporters, and invite the International Labour Organization to monitor the 2013 harvest in order to determine the true scale of the use of forced labor and to prepare recommendations for how best to go about addressing the problem.

Ultimately, the smallest of wins demonstrate that even in closed societies such as Uzbekistan, concerted international pressure works.

Help end cotton crimes. Find out how you can take action on the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights website.

31 Comments

End Forced Labor Now!

Jeff Goldstein & Jacqueline Hale - you better cover the region as a whole rather than Uzbekistan only. Tajikistan is the worse scenario - why this country is not consdered in your article? People out there are hungry, struggle to survive, with no access to basis services - and yet one clan on power is just getting rich day by day. Source of that - child labor, inequality, no access to justice, high level of crime, national degradation, colaps of culture and the nation - all man made deceases can be easily found there!

Please change the Policy on Cotton Crime, and stop free labour

What a horrible tale to tell a child at night. I don't know what is worse-Uzbek cotton or telling a child that story for night, and turning off the light, while it was clear that the child was scared and will have nightmares in Uzbek pajamas. Not the very best communication tool to get the message across. Negative communication is not used anymore in the real world.

I certainly will join and spread a cotton campaign to boycott anything produced by denying legal empowerment. Strong laws designed to guarantee basic human rights for every single person are essential.

Farm work should be purely voluntary. This not a military function. If the government needs revenue, let them impose taxes like in any other western like country.

Please invite the International Labour Organization to monitor the 2013 cotton harvest in order to prepare recommendations for how to best go about addressing the problem.

Children should be in school not in the cotton fields

We support the open society version to end the forced labour worl over.

Rule of law can only help the deprived people.

community education will be a solution in the future and we can help the marginalizion people.

This is horrible! The dictator must be stopped!
I think it would be more convenient for the readers if this URL: http://www.ecchr.eu/cotton is written in the text, not in the video.

In this time and age, forced labor is unacceptable!

I think the Government can promote education in order to safe guard those young children

Forced Labour should be STOPPED! It is against Human Right

our open world needs more and more community education !!!!

Stop all exploitation of the powerless by the powerful.
Stop forced labor now.

It is unbelievable that any government can impose such policy on it's own people. This is barbaric and anachronistic. The whole world should rise up and not only condemn this policy but to totally put an end to it. This is a crime against humanity.

The Rule of law must work to stop school going age children to be in the class room not in the cotton field.

'The Constitution of the Republic of Uzbekistan asserts that "democracy in the Republic of Uzbekistan shall be based upon common human principles, according to which the highest value shall be the human being, his life, freedom, honour, dignity and other inalienable rights."'
wikipedia

Too bad the people and government do not turn cotton picking into a party and festival. Celebrate this gift that feeds the people. Slavery is stupid. Share the wealth and provide comfort for the people. Build a great society and create sculptures and monuments. Hopefully, the net profits are being used in wise investments and not for corruption and self gain.

Sounds like dictatorial practice to me ,we must try to end this crime

Commonly, the human rights organizations which have worked in various fields of life. But there are still many problems which have not yet been any platform. Even with these problems the states have failed to legislate. For example, when man and woman get to marry, a document is prepared so that they can not do illicit behavior with each other but there both do not produce any document the defense will get their children who are born hereinafter. It is not often that parents have for their children may bother. But sometimes, parents, who give birth a baby without marriage certificate. Afraid of notoriously, illicit children are thrown on pile of garbage. The People with such like children are always injustice. Afterword they become nuisance for people. It Get to hear an occurrence on each day that an old father married with a young woman and something reasonable under the guise young children removed from the home. I think, for those still raising voice was no sound in the world. No any law which protect them in our country. For this task we will create a panel of expert exponents who can communicate to the law making agencies. It is often seen that father is wrong. Unwanted ugly wife’s children are tortured by their cruel father, he sends his children to the market for earning the money. Those young boys who go out from home thereafter some make vagabond themselves and some highly use drugs. Our society provides food, shelters, treatments and education resources for these children. We need your financially help. Thank you.

The government and all adults in this particular Country and any other in the universe, should protect children anshield them from Child labour. It is their right to be protected, cared for and educated; theeeese rights should be respected.

Бесплатный детский труд - это наследие СССР.

In addition to enslaving the nation, cotton farming in Uzbekistan and throughout the rest of Central Asia has a horrific environmental impact. Over some 3 decades, it completely sucked dry the Aral Sea, worlds former fourth largest lake, creating one of the worst environmental catastrophes ever perpetrated by mankind.
As a photographer, I have spent lot of time in the area documenting the wide spread devastation, check out "The Dying Sea" project featured on my site http://www.radekphoto.com

The Children of Uzbekistan Human Rights Issues with regards Forces lab our of children in the cotton field is a serious violation on the Rights of the Children of Uzbekistan.International Human Rights Organization should empowered the Civil Society Organization in Uzbekistan to mount a Nation Wide Civil disobedient for the Rights of the Children of Uzbekistan to stop working in the cotton field.
Thank you.

please give us practical recomendations how we...the american public...can help with this issue!!!! Please give us a public list of all companies that are involved directly or indirectly in this UZBEK gov. venture

Well to say that this is barbaric will be an understatement! I think the pathway to all known social change is information and exposure. Everyone is a stakeholder in social issues of these nature and all should rise to to save the situation in every capacity possible.International and local organisations and even individuals should rise to the task to salvage the plight of these victims of circumstance

el señor ya llego por segunda vez, Jesucristo Hombre. el
acavara con toda injusticia y abuso en la tierra.
vea, www.telegracia.com
aqui encontrara la verdad.

STOP ALL THE FORCE LABOR NOW IT IS SLAVERY.

The whole story would be unbelievable in Uganda (AFRICA)! I join others in condemning the slavery where even TEACHERS are forced to work in the fields, I imagine, along-side thier very pupils. That must STOP.

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