Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights
Memorandum to the European Parliament
INTA Monitoring Group on Central Asia
Human Rights Violations in Uzbekistan’s Cotton Sector in 2013
April 14, 2014
The Uzbek government once again used forced labor in the cotton sector systematically on a massive scale, and across the country in 2013, affecting hundreds of thousands of children aged 15-17 and adults. While children younger than 15 were not mobilized on a mass scale in 2013, authorities forced children aged 15-17, studying at colleges and lyceums, to abandon their studies and harvest cotton in every region of the country, for periods up two and a half months. The authorities forced teachers from institutions at every educational level to pick cotton, thereby disrupting studies for many children, even those who were not sent to the cotton fields themselves.
Uzbekistan has an atrocious human rights record, with entrenched human rights violations limiting a wide range of fundamental human rights. Torture is systematic. Courts are not independent. Violations of due process and other protections are endemic in the criminal justice system. Uzbekistan severely and unduly restricts the freedoms of religion, speech, assembly, and association. The government has only granted registration to one independent human rights organization. Journalists, civil society activists, and human rights defenders are subjected to harassment, surveillance, and interference in their work, and in some cases imprisonment, ill-treatment, or torture (1).
The government of Uzbekistan also has a long-standing record of non-cooperation with independent international monitoring and investigation mechanisms and regularly rejects or fails to comply with recommendations made by international bodies. As of 2014, Uzbekistan had failed to respond to outstanding invitations by 11 United Nations special human rights monitors.
The International Labor Organization’s Monitoring Mission
During the 2013 cotton harvest, the International Labor Organization (ILO) for the first time monitored the application of ILO Convention No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labor. The ILO’s stated goal was to subsequently develop “a comprehensive national cooperation program in collaboration with the Sub-Regional Office and Decent Work Team covering Eastern Europe and Central Asia.” (2)
The ILO’s monitoring mission was not able to undertake a comprehensive assessment of the use of forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector. The mission’s scope did not include the use of forced adult labor, nor were monitors present during any pre-harvest stages of work such as preparing the fields, planting, and weeding the cotton. Research by the Uzbek-German Forum evinces that children and adults were forcibly mobilized to plough and weed, as in previous years. (3)
There were other crucial methodological limitations under which the ILO monitors observed the 2013 harvest. The ILO did not ensure the participation of the International Trade Union Confederation, the International Organization of Employers, and Uzbek civil society. The monitoring teams all included Uzbek government representatives or representatives of quasi-governmental or government-controlled organizations whose independence and impartiality was far from guaranteed. According to the ILO report, the Local Coordination Council, which was composed entirely of representatives of government agencies, appointed 40 Uzbek local monitors from the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection, the Trade Union Federation including the Women’s committees, the Chamber of Commerce and Industries, and the Farmers’ Association, all of which are government agencies or government-controlled (4). The presence of monitors appointed by government officials and working for a government or government-controlled agencies calls into serious question the independence and impartiality of the Uzbek team members. The government of Uzbekistan undoubtedly had a stake in the outcome of the ILO’s mission and cannot be viewed as impartial. Further, given pervasive, widespread, serious violations of human rights in Uzbekistan, there is a deeply rooted fear of government and government officials. People interviewed by the monitoring teams may not have felt secure in communicating violations that implicate the government out of fear of repercussions. The ILO’s report is silent on whether it recognized this as a possibility and attempted to take any steps to assure respondents or ameliorate issues related to the possibility of bias.
The ILO’s mission was also weakened by efforts of the Uzbek government to undermine monitoring, including transferring students, in particular first-year students, back and forth between their classrooms and the cotton fields to evade discovery by ILO monitors and instructing people to lie to monitors. These practices indicate that the government of Uzbekistan did not participate in the ILO mission as a good-faith partner and, in fact, actively attempted to undermine the ILO’s monitoring.
Despite the limitations under which the ILO observed the harvest, its mission report noted the use of child labor, emphasized concerns about the use of forced labor for the cotton harvest, and recommended that the government take action to implement ILO Convention No. 105. (5)
The Systematic Use of Child Labor in the 2013 Cotton Harvest
In the ILO mission report, the conclusion that “forced child labor has not been used on a systematic basis in Uzbekistan to harvest cotton in 2013” reflected both the goal of the exercise— to build trust towards broader ILO program in Uzbekistan— and the limitations imposed on the ILO monitors. It also contrasts with the evidence presented in the ILO mission report of the use of the state school system to mobilize students to the harvest. For example, the ILO monitors reported that in eight of nine high schools (“colleges”) they visited, classes, were not in session due to cotton picking, and school officials provided no attendance registers or other evidence to support the reasons given to monitors, for example, that students were engaged in extra-curricular activities. (6)
The Uzbek-German Forum carried out research in six oblasts and the capital, Tashkent, and did not identify major regional differences in the system of forced labor. The system of forced labor is highly centralized, with directives coming from the central government and enforced by regional and local administrations. The Uzbek-German Forum interviewed 40 students and 36 teachers at colleges and lyceums.
In 2013, the government made efforts to avoid mobilizing young school children; however, they mobilized students aged 15-18 on a mass scale, suggesting the reduction in forced labor of younger children was a tactic to allay pressure. Although in some regions directives were issued to use only second and third-year students for the harvest, in many cases first-year students were subsequently sent to pick cotton to help schools meet their harvest quotas or to make up for labor shortfalls. The Uzbek-German Forum also documented cases in which first-year students were sent to the cotton fields and brought back earlier than second and third-year students. In some cases, students and teachers reported that the early return was the government’s response to the news that a “foreign delegation” or “inspection,” apparently the ILO monitors, was coming.
The Uzbek-German Forum’s researchers also documented numerous, credible accounts of attempts to manipulate the ILO’s findings by transferring students between the fields and classrooms or instructing them how to respond to questions by ILO teams. Local authorities harassed and intimidate families that did not want to allow their children to pick cotton, including threats to expel students and, in at least one case, bringing the parents before a local prosecutor. Children who are perceived to be bad workers or who failed to meet the daily quotas were berated by teachers, threatened with poor grades or expulsion, and made to perform additional work, such as scrubbing toilets or peeling potatoes. The Uzbek-German Forum documented several cases where students who failed to pick the daily quota were punished by being forced to perform arduous physical activities such as push-ups or running. Researchers also documented at least ten cases of students being hit or beaten to force them to work or as punishment for failure to meet the quota.
- A college teacher in the Zarbdar region reported that at the beginning of the harvest only second and third-year students were sent to pick cotton but when the school was unable to fulfill its daily quota the regional hokim ordered first-year students to pick cotton. However first-year students were returned to the classroom when the school learned that the ILO might visit.
- A teacher in the Mirzaabad region, Syrdarya oblast told the Uzbek-German Forum that at the beginning of the harvest classes stopped entirely and all first, second, and third-year students went to pick cotton but after ten days first-year students were returned to their classrooms. After 10-15 days they came back to the fields and did not resume classes until after the harvest.
- A father in Zarbdar region, Jizzakh oblast, told the Uzbek-German Forum that his son, a first-year student at a professional college, and his classmates picked cotton for 10 days before being returned to school, apparently in preparation for a visit from a “high-level foreign delegation” and that, if asked how long they participated in the harvest, the students were instructed to say that they did not harvest cotton and had remained at their studies. The delegation did not visit and the students were returned to the harvest. On several occasions, students arrived ready to go to the harvest and were sent home to change clothes and appear at school in case the delegation visited.
- A 16-year old first-year student in Akhangaran region, Tashkent oblast reported that he and his classmates were taken to harvest cotton on September 17, and returned on October 15. Classes resumed on October 21. “We, first-years, came back earlier than [second- and third-year students]. I heard that some kind of commission was coming so they had us return to school earlier.”
- • A 9th-grade pupil in Urgench reported that for several days in September, he and his classmates were loaded onto busses and taken to a local college where all students were away harvesting cotton. The children were kept in classrooms and told to pretend they were first- and second-year students in the event of an inspection.
Recommendations to the European Union to support ending forced labour in Uzbekistan
- Urge the ILO to ensure the participation of the International Trade Union Confederation and the International Union of Food Workers as well as the continuous consultation of independent Uzbek civil society in all monitoring and technical assistance activities. Enabling Uzbek citizens to exercise fundamental labour rights is the foundation for ending forced labor.
- Proceed to excludeUzbek cotton from the EU’s Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) if the government of Uzbekistan fails clearly to demonstrate a serious, measurable commitment to end forced labor prior to the 2014 cotton harvest.
- Ensure that the EU does not support forced labor in Uzbekistan by banning business with any company using Uzbek cotton for EU procurement and urging global brands to implement a similar ban.
 For more information, see for example Human Rights Watch 2014 World Report, http://www.hrw.org/world-report/2014/country-chapters/uzbekistan?page=1.
International Labour Organization, “ILO High Level Mission Report on the Monitoring of Child Labour During 2013 Cotton Harvest in Uzbekistan,” 19 November 2013, paragraph 7, page 5.
 Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, Chronicle of Forced Labour, Issue 1, June 5, 2013, http://uzbekgermanforum.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Reports-from-the-cotton-fields-Issue-1-2013.pdf.
 ILO report, p. 6. “The Coordination Council consists of representatives from the Ministries of Labour and Social Protection, Education, Foreign Affairs, Internal Affairs, the Women’s Committee, the Center on Human Rights, the Board of Secondary and Vocational Education, the Makhalla Foundation and the ODM Kamelot.”
Ibid, paragraphs 35-36, page 13.
IbidAnnex D, page 77.