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.