(Washington) – The United States government’s decision to place Uzbekistan in the lowest category of its annual human trafficking report sends a message of solidarity to the well over a million Uzbeks forced to pick the country’s cotton crop, the Cotton Campaign, of which Human Rights Watch is a member, said today.
The ranking is based on Uzbekistan’s massive use of forced labor of children and adults to pick the country’s annual cotton crop. The Cotton Campaign is a coalition of human rights, labor, investor, and business organizations, including human rights groups from Uzbekistan.
“This decision is an important step toward holding Tashkent accountable for the abysmal reality in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Over a million Uzbek adults and children are forced to harvest cotton for weeks on end every autumn in abusive conditions on threat of punishment.”
The State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report placed Uzbekistan in the lowest category, Tier 3 in 2013, and maintained the placement in this year’s report. Tier 3 is reserved for governments that do not comply with minimum standards to combat human trafficking and fail to take adequate steps to address the problem, and it carries the possibility of sanctions.
In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry on June 20, 2013, the Cotton Campaign called on US officials to press Tashkent, at a minimum, to provide the International Labor Organization unfettered access to monitor the problems of forced labor and child labor during this fall’s harvest. The coalition also urged US officials to stress to American companies operating in Uzbekistan the importance of fulfilling their human rights due diligence responsibilities. Companies are required to employ due diligence in the conduct of their operations to ensure that they do not cause or contribute to human rights abuses.
The Uzbek government organizes and controls a cotton production system that relies on forced labor. Yet it continues to deny that forced labor is used and cracks down on rights activists who try to monitor the harvest.
While the government reduced the number of children under 16 of age it forces into the cotton fields, regional authorities, police, and school administrators reporting to the prime minister transported busloads of children ages 16 to17 and adults to the country’s cotton fields in 2013, where they picked cotton for weeks at a time.
“Forced labor in Uzbekistan is alive and well,” said Umida Niyazova, head of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights. “Shifting the burden to older children and adults to work in the cotton fields to replace some younger children does not change the fact that the Uzbek government is forcing well over a million of its people to labor in these fields involuntarily every year.”
Under the US Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), President Barack Obama must decide within 90 days whether to apply or waive the sanctions mandated for Tier 3 countries. If Uzbek authorities fail to make concrete improvements prior to this year’s harvest, the Obama administration should examine options for applying sanctions, including travel restrictions for Uzbek officials involved in the forced labor system and using its votes at the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, to postpone any new lending to Uzbekistan, the Cotton Campaign said.
“While the decision is an important step to curb forced labor, further pressure will still be needed,” said Nadejda Atayeva, president of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia. “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 Uzbek authorities’ relentless crackdown on the independent activists who attempt to monitor abuses surrounding the cotton harvest is a further indication of the government’s lack of political will to address this issue, the coalition said. In September 2013, at the height of the harvest, Sergei Naumov, an independent journalist, disappeared after being detained by Uzbek authorities. Naumov had been shooting video footage of people forced to pick cotton in local cotton fields. Naumov was later located at the Urgench City Department of Internal Affairs intake facility and released following international pressure.
In the same month, Bobomurod Razzakov, chairman of the Bukhara region branch of Ezgulik (Compassion), Uzbekistan’s only legally registered independent human rights group, was sentenced to four years in prison by the Bukhara City Criminal Court on fabricated charges of “human trafficking.” Ezgulik has worked extensively on human rights issues in the cotton industry.
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.
“The State Department made the right move by declaring to the world that Uzbekistan is one of the worst offenders when it comes to forced labor,” said Bennett Freeman, senior vice president for sustainability research and policy at Calvert Investments. “We urge the US government to continue to press Uzbek authorities to eliminate state-sponsored forced labor of children and adults.”