BACKGROUND: forced labour IN THE UZBEK COTTON INDUSTRY Forced labour system in Uzbekistan explained in two minutes
Uzbekistan is the fourth biggest exporter of cotton globally and the government of Uzbekistan uses one of the largest state-sponsored systems of forced labour to harvest it. Every year the government forcibly mobilises over one million of citizens to grow and harvest cotton.
Uzbek cotton production yields annual profit of around US$1 billion. However, all the profits go to a small elite of the most powerful in the country, while most of the population remains impoverished.
Every year the Uzbek government forces farmers to grow cotton and deliver production quotas. Failure to comply with the requirement can lead to loss of the lease of the farm, public harassment, criminal charges and fines.
Every September, the harvest begins. Local administration employees, teachers, factory workers and doctors are forced to leave their jobs for weeks at a time and pick cotton with little or no additional compensation, under the threat of punishment and dismissal from work.
Cotton harvest is coupled with large scale corruption and extortion by public officials. Those who want to avoid having to pick cotton can opt to pay approximately US$200 to the local administration instead. Businesses, including international businesses report that they too are required to contribute to the harvest, either by sending workers or financially.
The work in the cotton fields is dangerous, people suffer from ill-health and malnutrition after weeks of arduous labour in challenging conditions. Some people have died as a result of the work they have been forced to do. In June 2015, a 55 year old woman died
after working in 50 degree heat in the Jizzakh region. She had been feeling unwell and had not wanted to work, but was afraid of losing her job at a local school. Such incidents are unfortunately all too common. Uzbek people speak about forced labour in cotton industry
Due to sustained pressure by Anti-Slavery, international organisations and foreign governments, the demographic of those sent into the fields has been changing since 2012. In 2015, we have not seen the mass-mobilisation of younger children known from previous years.
To compensate for fewer children in the fields, the Uzbek government forcibly mobilised masses of adults, especially teachers and medical professionals in 2014. The scale of forced labour disrupted the delivery of essential public services including education, medical care, transportation and banking. Sending older, 15-17-year-old, children into the fields is also still common.
Worryingly, the 2015 harvest has been accompanied by a severe crackdown on human rights activists and journalists attempting to document forced labour in the harvest. This year was punctuated by a number of particularly cruel and human rights abuses, including arrests and forced body cavity searches on women activists
, and burning down the office of an activist documenting forced labour
Uzbekistan, is one of the few countries in the world where the use of forced labour in the cotton industry is systematically organised by the state. However, the Government of Uzbekistan denies that forced labour is an official policy, claiming that citizens volunteer out of loyalty to their community and take part as a form of traditional voluntary labour called “khashar”.
The continued practice of forced labour violates Uzbekistan’s national laws as well as international conventions the country is a party to, including International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour and ILO Convention 105 on the Abolition of Forced Labour. However, it has continued to violate all these measures and denies that new domestic legislation is needed to implement these legal commitments.
COTTON CRIMES CAMPAIGN
To end forced labour in the cotton industry, Anti-Slavery International launched an international campaign to call upon international institutions and the private sector (retailers, cotton traders and investors) to put pressure on the Government of Uzbekistan to end the use of forced labour in the cotton industry.
Although many international brands pledged not to knowingly use Uzbek cotton
in their products, no brand can say with certainty that Uzbek cotton isn't used at some point in their supply chain. The Cotton Crimes campaign therefore calls on retailers to implement steps to ensure none of their suppliers profit from the use of forced labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry by implementing the so called Daewoo Protocol
We are making progress. Under pressure from campaigners H&M took concrete steps
to ensure Uzbek cotton is eradicated from its supply chain, and Nike moved to cut all ties with Daewoo
, a company that continues to profit from forced labour in Uzbek cotton.
Anti-Slavery’s campaign succeeded in persuading the European Parliament to defer signature of a bilateral trade agreement between the European Union and Uzbekistan until it demonstrates progress in addressing forced labour. This major victory was made possible through action of nearly 15,000 supporters who signed our petition and wrote to their MEPs. However, this success is at risk. On the basis of the perceived progress the Uzbek government has made in addressing child and forced labour, the European Parliament may consider signing the agreement to allow the trade in cotton produced using forced labour.
The system of forced labour in Uzbekistan is also receiving tacit support from the World Bank, who fund agricultural projects in parts of Uzbekistan where forced labour is used. Read here
about our March action petitioning the World Bank to stop financing Uzbek forced labour.
The practice of state sponsored forced labour is also present in neighbouring Turkmenistan. Every year the government of Turkmenistan forces tens of thousands of citizens to pick cotton and farmers to deliver production quotas, all under threat of punishment.
Although Turkmenistan receives much less attention than Uzbekistan, our campaign also works to end the practice in this country.
Most recently, to coincide with the International Labour Conference examination of
forced labour in Turkmenistan in May 2016, we sent a letter to the Turkmen government to stop the practice
. There is a large number
of signatories, including a number of apparel brands.
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