The gallery gives a rare insight into the repressive system of forced labour in the cotton industry in Uzbekistan and its impact on the lives of millions of people.
Forced labour in Uzbekistan: What’s the situation?
In one of the largest state-orchestrated systems of forced labour in the world, every year, the Government of Uzbekistan orders hundreds of thousands of its citizens out of their regular jobs and into the fields to pick cotton. Toiling for weeks in arduous and hazardous conditions, these people have no choice but to help make Uzbekistan the sixth-largest producer of cotton, with the profits enriching a small cadre of government officials.
Uzbek Government mobilises masses of public and private sector workers against their will to pick cotton for around two months of the year, violating fundamental human rights, as well as national and international law, and depriving Uzbek citizens of core services.
The international community had hoped that the new President Shavkat Mirziyoyev would provide an opportunity for reform, following the death of former President Islam Karimov, but the new 2017 harvest showed little change in the state system of coercion and abuse.
Thanks to international pressure driven by Anti-Slavery and its partners from the Cotton Campaign coalition, we have seen some recent progress towards ending the systematic use of forced child labour in the cotton fields. However, this seems only to have been replaced by the coercion of more adults. And in the 2016 harvest, independent monitors found more child pickers than in previous years.
Getting a clear picture of forced labour in the Uzbek cotton industry is not straightforward. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has been working with the government to eliminate child labour and improve conditions in the cotton industry since 2015, but its monitoring methodology has come under some criticism.
At the same time, the regime has taken extraordinary measures to cover up its use of forced labour, including using intimidation, violence, and arbitrary detention to prevent and deter independent monitors from operating and citizens from speaking out.
We need to bring the situation to the attention of international governments, institutions and businesses who can exert pressure on the government to stop this illegal harmful practice for good.
In 2015 and 2016, we sent undercover reporters on missions to gather first hand evidence directly from the frontline during the cotton harvest.
The photos in this gallery give a rare insight into this repressive system and its impact on the lives of millions of people.
Under government orders
An estimated one million students – sometimes children – teachers, medical staff, other government workers and privatesector employees were forcibly mobilised to cotton production in 2016 alone. The industry generates about a quarter of the country’s GDP, but these funds enrich government elites, rather than benefit ordinary citizens.
The power of the ‘Hokims’
The mobilisation of citizens is managed by the regional governors – hokims – who are given a cotton production quota by the central government every year. They often recruit workers through coercion, intimidation and threats.
No right to refuse
Public sector workers, already among the lowest paid in the country, risk being fired if they refuse orders. There are no excuses: even pensioners, the sick and disabled are forced to go to the fields. Pregnant women and those with very young children are threatened with the cut of state child benefit payments if they do not participate. The only option for those who cannot do the work is to pay someone to go in their place.
Students and employees of public institutions often have to sign special statements agreeing to ‘voluntarily’ pick cotton or be expelled from their schools or lose their jobs. During recent harvests, universities across the country were essentially closed so students could harvest cotton for up to 60 days.
Each citizen picking cotton is given a daily quota. Those who fail to meet their targets or pick a low quality crop have to pay fines to make up the difference in value of cotton they were ordered to pick. Those refusing to pay the fines risk losing their jobs or face harassment from employers or the government.
Living in tough conditions
People often have to leave their homes and stay at temporary accommodation for between a few weeks and two months, depending on their employers’ instructions. Students often endure crowded and unsanitary living conditions, earning very little or incurring debts while working in the fields.
Secrecy and repression
Officials claim that people go to harvest cotton voluntarily in order to earn extra money. However, people are often ordered to hide their profession from the ILO monitoring teams. Also, the government often places representatives under their control into the ILO teams.
Crackdown on activists
The government suppresses independent scrutiny of its labour practices by preventing human rights activists, independent monitors, and journalists from documenting the cotton harvest. Activists such as Elena Urlaeva have been subjected to surveillance, harassment, arbitrary detentions and other abuses. On 1st March 2017, police again detained Urlaeva, incarcerating her in psychiatric hospital for two weeks for forced treatment.
Neglect of vital services
During the harvest, vital public services are neglected and under-staffed because health workers are forced to pick cotton, sometimes for weeks. Local monitors documented many cases of people being affected by the lack of immediately available healthcare, including the case of a young mother who lost her baby while doctors were in the fields picking cotton.
Where the cotton ends up
As a result of the efforts of the Cotton Campaign coalition, over 250 companies have signed the Cotton Pledge to not knowingly source cotton from Uzbekistan due to forced adult and child labour in the sector. However, ensuring Uzbek cotton is entirely eliminated from a company’s supply chain is a more difficult task, and much remains to be done. The majority of Uzbek cotton is exported to Bangladesh and China, where it finds its way into clothes and other cotton products that we use every day across the world.