(Washington, DC) – The United States government’s decision not to cite Uzbekistan for its widespread practice of forced and child labor in the country’s cotton sector sends the wrong message to the Uzbek government, a broad coalition of groups said in a letter to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on June 19, 2012. The coalition called on US officials to press the Uzbek government to invite the International Labour Organization (ILO) to monitor the 2012 cotton harvest.
The letter followed the US government’s release on June 19 of its annual Global Trafficking in Persons (GTIP) report. The report fails to cite Uzbekistan as a country that does not comply with minimal standards to combat forced and child labor, or a “Tier III country,” the groups said. Under the US Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), the Uzbek government should have demonstrated that it was making“significant efforts” to eliminate forced labor to avoid a downgrade to Tier III, which would carry the threat of sanctions.
“Forced labor of adults and children is human trafficking under US law,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia Researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The failure to classify Uzbekistan properly for the fifth straight year is wholly inconsistent with the well-documented evidence of its systematic abuses. The US effectively sent a message to Uzbek authorities that enslaving children for profit in abusive conditions is cost-free.”
The coalition consists of human rights, trade union, apparel industry, retail, investor, and other nongovernmental organizations, including groups from Uzbekistan.
Uzbek authorities use a cotton production system that in practice relies on the use of forced labor, while consistently denying that forced labor is used and cracking down on rights activists who try to monitor it. Reports about the 2011 harvest by local monitoring groups and academic studies highlighted the coercion of children as young as 10 and adults to pick cotton and to fulfill government quotas.
The State Department report identifies the Uzbek government’s state quota system for cotton production as a root cause of the practice of forced labor. However, even though Tashkent has clearly made no progress in addressing the issue, the State Department waived the threat of sanctions, as it did last year.
The global trafficking report acknowledges that during the cotton harvest, working conditions include long hours, insufficient food and water, exposure to harmful pesticides, verbal abuse, and inadequate shelter. The report also noted that the use of forced labor and child labor was higher than in the previous years.
The relentless crackdown on the independent civil society activists who attempt to monitor the cotton sector abuses is a further indication of the Uzbek government’s lack of political will to address this issue, the groups said. In 2011, Uzbek authorities arbitrarily detained at least three prominent rights activists – Elena Urlaeva, Gulshan Karaeva, and Nodir Akhatov –while they were photographing and interviewing Uzbek school children forced to pick cotton. Karaeva was recently violently attacked for her human rights activism in an event that appeared to be orchestrated by authorities.
In addition, school officials in Jizzakh in 2011 fired a teacher, Ziyadullo Rizzakov, after he protested the mobilization of his students into the cotton fields. Later, local prosecutors threatened him with a criminal investigation if he persisted in his human rights work.
International nongovernmental organizations and foreign media outlets are prevented from operating in Uzbekistan, making it difficult to report on forced and child labor or other human rights abuses. For years the Uzbek government has refused to allow the ILO to send independent experts to the country to monitor forced and child labor during the fall cotton harvest.
“We are concerned that with quotas set so high for this fall, according to all reports, the Uzbek government will demand even more from the children and adults forced to grow and harvest cotton,” said Brian Campbell, policy director at the International Labor Rights Forum. “Only the ILO has the technical expertise and experience to properly monitor this practice, and it should have unfettered access throughout the cotton harvest and the ability to fully engage Uzbek civil society.”
This appeal follows a letter from the coalition to Clinton in April, urging the US government to downgrade Uzbekistan in the 2012 Trafficking in Persons report.
“The practice of forced labor in Uzbekistan has persisted for far too long and should be urgently ended,” said Nate Herman, vice president of international trade for the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA), which said it will continue speaking out about Uzbekistan until forced and child labor are eradicated. “This year’s report missed a crucial opportunity to end this abominable practice sooner.”