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Despite Cosmetic Reforms, Modern Slavery Is Alive and Well in Uzbekistan

While the Uzbek government has taken steps to address the use of child labor, the country continues to use modern slavery during the annual cotton harvest.

Each autumn, the Uzbek government coerces an estimated 1.2 million Uzbeks into modern slavery to harvest cotton through a variety of threats, public humiliation, and beatings. That’s almost four percent of the population, making Uzbekistan one of the worst perpetrators of forced labor in the world.

Mounting international pressure has forced the Uzbek authorities to curtail the use of child labor in recent years. But this has not had a major impact on the scale of the problem. Rather than fundamentally reform the cotton production system, the government has simply shifted the burden from children to adults by increasing the number of adult laborers. 

A recent report from the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights [PDF] on forced labor during this year’s harvest illustrates a variety of abuses perpetrated by the state.

While the number of child laborers fell, Uzbek authorities put some of the heaviest work quotas on public workers, particularly those in the education and health sectors. That had the adverse effect of undermining the operations of key public services during the fall harvest.

In some parts of the country, parents were forced to pick cotton in place of their children, and those who could not or did not want to go to the fields had to pay for replacement workers regardless of their age, physical condition, or financial situation. One mother who could not afford to hire a replacement worker for the harvest had to leave her two children home where they died in a fire while she picked cotton for the benefit of Uzbekistan’s top leaders.

Farmers also were subject to government pressure, tasked with fulfilling very high production quotas. Authorities threatened farmers and laborers with the loss of social benefit payments, employment, utilities, and land leases, as well as the imposition of fines and criminal prosecution. These tactics were so severe and humiliating that at least one farmer committed suicide.

Poor and unsafe working conditions also explain the increasingly high number of accidents and deaths during the 2014 harvest. At least 17 people died this fall, six more than last year. Workers were not only made to work long shifts and often spent several weeks in the fields, but in many cases they had to use their meager harvest wages to pay for dismal food, unsanitary housing, and unsafe transportation.

Despite a government decree this year prohibiting the mobilization of child labor, local authorities continued to coerce children into working in some parts of the country, particularly towards the end of the harvest when there was intensified pressure to fulfill quotas.

And when forced to decide whether to risk their jobs by failing to meet their quotas or follow laws banning child labor, these local officials opted to put children to work.

The Uzbek government’s reluctance to change the cotton production system is unsurprising given that, as my colleagues have written, the system in its current form is incredibly lucrative for the country’s elite.

International pressure does work. Multilateral advocacy on these issues through engagement of governments, civil society, international organizations, and the private sector has created mounting pressure, moving Uzbekistan to make some attempts to address its use of child labor.

But more needs to be done. Governments and multilateral institutions that partner with Uzbekistan must communicate clearly to authorities in Tashkent that their government needs to eliminate all forms of forced labor if they want to develop their relations with the rest of the world. 

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