(Washington) – The United States government’s decision to downgrade Uzbekistan in a human trafficking ranking based on its use of forced and child labor sends a powerful message of support to the millions of Uzbeks forced to pick the country’s cotton crop. Moving Uzbekistan to the lowest category is one of the strongest efforts in years to hold Uzbekistan accountable for its atrocious record on forced labor.
“The US government’s ranking of Uzbekistan among the governments considered to be the most serious abusers of labor rights was absolutely the right decision,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The abysmal reality on the ground is that over a million Uzbek adults and children are forced to harvest cotton for weeks on end every autumn, often in abusive conditions on threat of punishment.”
The decision, announced on June 19, is an important step towards holding the Uzbek government accountable, Human Rights Watch said.
The State Department’s annual Global Trafficking in Persons (GTIP) report placed Uzbekistan in the lowest category – “Tier III” – in its rankings of a country’s efforts to combat human trafficking. Tier III is reserved for governments that do not comply with minimal standards to combat forced and child labor and carries the possibility of sanctions. The Obama administration should apply sanctions unless Uzbekistan takes significant steps to improve its record, Human Rights Watch said.
In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry on June 19, 2013, Human Rights Watch and other members of a coalition concerned with the issue called on US officials to redouble efforts to press the Uzbek government to invite the International Labour Organization (ILO) to monitor the 2013 cotton harvest, which it has refused to do. The coalition consists of human rights, trade union, apparel industry, retail, investor, and other nongovernmental organizations, including human rights groups from Uzbekistan.
The Uzbek government uses a cotton production system that relies on forced labor, organized and controlled by government authorities. Yet it consistently denies that forced labor is used and cracks down on rights activists who try to monitor the harvest. Reporting on the 2012 cotton harvest, Human Rights Watch highlighted the coercion of adults and children to pick cotton and to fulfill government quotas.
Under the US Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPA), President Barack Obama must decide within 90 days whether to apply or waive the sanctions mandated for Tier III countries. If Uzbek authorities fail to invite the ILO to monitor the situation prior to this year’s fall harvest, the Obama administration should impose sanctions, including travel restrictions for Uzbek officials involved in the forced labor system, Human Rights Watch said.
“While the decision was an important step to curb forced labor, further pressure will still be needed,” Swerdlow said. “Tashkent’s well-established pattern of breaking its international commitments means that the Obama administration should be ready to follow through with the consequences set out in the legislation, including travel restrictions on Uzbek officials who organize and profit from forced labor.”
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, and acknowledges that, during the cotton harvest, working conditions include exposure to physical and verbal abuse and lack of freedom of movement.
The Uzbek authorities’ relentless crackdown on the independent civil society activists who attempt to monitor the cotton crop abuses is a further indication of the government’s lack of political will to address this issue, Human Rights Watch said. In September 2012, at the height of the harvest, authorities arrested Uktam Pardaev, a human rights activist who is well-known for his work monitoring the cotton harvest in the Jizzakh region of central Uzbekistan. Security officials beat Pardaev and then held him incommunicado for 15 days on minor administrative charges. 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 the cotton harvest.
The ILO has the technical expertise and experience to monitor the harvest and should have unfettered access and the ability to engage freely with people outside of the government, especially independent activists and people forced to pick cotton, Human Rights Watch said.
On June 11, reiterating its call to Uzbek authorities to allow the monitoring mission during the 2013 harvest, an expert panel at the ILO in Geneva cited evidence of the “systematic mobilization” of adults and children to pick cotton during Uzbekistan’s 2012 cotton harvest “as well as the substantial negative impact of this practice on the health and education of school-aged children obliged to participate in the cotton harvest.”
The coalition’s letter follows an earlier appeal from the coalition to Kerry in April, urging the US government to downgrade Uzbekistan in the 2013 trafficking report. Russia and China were also on June 19 moved to Tier III from the Tier II “Watch List.”
“The US State Department took an important step by declaring to the world that Uzbekistan is one of the worst offenders when it comes to forced labor,” Swerdlow said. “Now the White House needs to take the next step and let Uzbekistan know that if it doesn’t allow impartial observers to visit during the harvest, there will be real consequences.”