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Uzbekistan: Forced Labor Widespread in Cotton Harvest

Source: Human Rights Watch - Sat, 26 Jan 2013 03:01 GMT
Author: Human Rights Watch
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Uzbek authorities have increased the use of forced labor by adults and older children in the cotton sector during the past year. The move was apparently made to shift the burden away from younger children in response to public scrutiny and international pressure.

(Berlin) - Uzbek authorities have increased the use of forced labor by adults and older children in the cotton sector during the past year, Human Rights Watch said today. The move was apparently made to shift the burden away from younger children in response to public scrutiny and international pressure.

For the 2012 harvest, the Uzbek government forced over a million of its own citizens, children and adults - including its teachers, doctors, and nurses - to harvest cotton in abusive conditions on threat of punishment, Human Rights Watch found. The authorities harassed local activists and journalists who tried to report on the issue. In 2011, Uzbekistan was the world's fifth largest exporter of cotton.

"The issue here is forced labor, plain and simple" said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Forcing more older children and adults to work in the cotton fields to replace some younger children, does not change the fact that Uzbekistan is forcing a million of its people to labor in these fields involuntarily every year at harvest season."

It is widely acknowledged that the Uzbekgovernment has longrelied on forced labor, including of children as young as nine, to pick cotton produced for export. In 2012, the burden was shifted somewhat to older children and adults, according to cotton workers, independent activists, and local rights groups across Uzbekistan who spoke with Human Rights Watch.Uzbek authorities refused to allow international monitors into the country for the fourth year in a row, and arrested and intimidated local activists and independent journalists who attempted to report on the forced labor situation. The Uzbek authorities should stop using forced labor and stop harassing journalists and advocates who report about it.

The United States and the European Union, key allies of Uzbekistan and important markets for its cotton, should publicly condemn the coercive forced labor system used to produce cotton in Uzbekistan. These allies should press the Uzbek government to end the practice and to permit monitoring by the International Labor Organization (ILO) during the 2013 harvest. Although international nongovernmental organizations and foreign media outlets are prevented from operating in Uzbekistan, Human Rights Watch received consistent, credible reports from cotton workers, individual activists, and local rights groups that the authorities used the forced labor of children and adults in the 2012 harvest.

In the government's efforts to silence activists, in September, at the height of the harvest, authorities arrested the human rights activist Uktam Pardaev in Jizzakh. Security officials beat Pardaev and then held him incommunicado for 15 days on minor administrative charges, according to Pardaev. Pardaev is well-known for his work monitoring the cotton harvest in the Jizzakh region of central Uzbekistan.

The children and adults were forced to work from early September until the beginning of November, to meet cotton quotas set for each province. Regional authorities, police, and school administrators, reporting to the prime minister and other cabinet ministers, transported children and adults by bus to the country's cotton fields, where those far from their homes were assigned temporary housing. The workers picked cotton for weeks at a time, and were not free to leave.

Not only is the cotton harvested with forced labor, but the conditions in the cotton fields are abusive and harmful, Human Rights Watch said. Workers lived in filthy conditions, contracted illnesses, suffered serious injuries, and worked from early morning until evening for little or no pay. Child and young adult workers missed school and college. Adults and older children were required to harvest a minimum of 60 kilograms (or 132 pounds) per day, with younger children required to meet slightly lower quotas.

In contrast to earlier years, the government reduced the numbers of younger children forced to pick cotton during the 2012 harvest. However, local monitors and rights groups reported that the authorities forced some children as young as nine to work in the cotton harvest in at least three regions. To compensate for the loss of younger children, the government forced larger numbers of adults and children, ages fifteen to seventeen, to work in the harvest.

Forced labor is work a person is required to do against their will under threat of punishment or penalty. It is absolutely prohibited under international law, with specific international legal protections for children.

"The shift in the age of those forced to pick cotton represents a cynical attempt by the Uzbek government to deflect criticism, but it ignores the crux of the problem," Swerdlow said. "The exploitative, illegal, forced labor system for both adults and kids remains as strong as ever."

In addition to older children, public sector employees, including doctors, teachers, and other civil servants, as well as workers from the private sector, were forced to participate in the harvest, Human Rights Watch found. The authorities threatened these workers with punishment if they tried to refuse, such as beatings by school administrators and local officials, and denial of critical social benefits. Private sector workers forced into the system were threatened with "taxes" and fines if they refused. In 2012, the Uzbek government, for the fourth year in a row, refused a request from the ILO to allow an observer mission to visit the country during the harvest. Instead, the authorities denied the existence of forced labor and boasted about the reduced numbers of young children in the cotton fields.

"Accepting an ILO monitoring mission is absolutely key to ending forced labor in Uzbekistan's cotton harvest, and western officials need to communicate that to Uzbek officials in no uncertain terms," Swerdlow said. "Without reliable observers on the ground to record what is really happening, the government will keep playing its game of smoke and mirrors and claim to solve the problem."

Several cases of injury or death due to hazardous conditions in the cotton fields, and others like them, illustrate the health and safety risks children and adults face in the Uzbek cotton harvest, and underline the vital importance of independent monitoring, Human Rights Watch said.

As of January, over 100 US, European, and Australian apparel brands and companies had signed a pledge to not knowingly use Uzbek cotton in their supply chains. The pledge has united an unprecedented number of American, European, and Australian apparel companies, including luxury brands, around ending forced labor in the cotton sector of Uzbekistan.

Despite the Uzbek government's consistent effort to block independent monitoring, a number of rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, Ezgulik (Compassion), the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, and the France-based Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, have sought to document practices in Uzbekistan's 2012 cotton harvest.

The report below consists of research by these groups, and testimony from underground activists in the country whose identity is protected for their safety. The rights groups form part of the "Cotton Campaign," a coalition that includes corporate socially responsible investors, trade unions, human rights organizations, and representatives of the apparel industry.


The 2012 Cotton Harvest

Forced Labor of Children and Adults

All of Uzbekistan's regions used forced labor by adults and children during the 2012 harvest, including all 12 provinces, the capital, Tashkent, and the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan, according to independent human rights activists and local journalists who visited a number of these regions in late 2012.

Uzbek civil society activists, independent researchers who reported on the harvest, and participants in the cotton harvest with whom Human Rights Watch spoke by telephone, all confirmed that authorities shifted the burden of forced child labor away from younger children toward older students, primarily ages 15 to 17. However, the authorities also mobilized some children as young as nine to work in the harvest in at least three regions.

Local groups said the government also relied more heavily on the forced labor of younger children in the final weeks of the 2012 cotton harvest, in late October and early November, to pick some of the crop that remained in the fields following harvesting by adults.

Elena Urlaeva, head of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, whose group has conducted monitoring in various regions of Uzbekistan during several cotton harvest seasons, told the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR): "They used to bring in children of ten and over to work in the fields, but now they are between 15 and 18, mostly college [secondary school] and high school students. The authorities have raised the age, but the pattern of forced labor still applies."

In spite of the shift toward using older children and adults, the Uzbek authorities' continued use of forced labor clearly violates Uzbekistan's international obligations, Human Rights Watch said.

Forced labor is absolutely prohibited under international law. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) prohibits forced labor (article 8), as do the two International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions, No. 29 and No. 105, concerning forced labor. Uzbekistan is a party to all three treaties. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Uzbekistan is also a party, prohibits economic exploitation and the employment of children in work that is likely to be hazardous, interfere with their education, or be harmful to their health or development.

In 1998, the ILO adopted the Declaration on Fundamental Principles that declares that all ILO members - of which Uzbekistan is one - even if they have not ratified either of the above conventions, are obliged to respect, promote, and realize the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor. ILO Convention No. 29 says that forced or compulsory labor "shall mean all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily."

With respect to child labor, ILO Convention 182 Concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor, to which Uzbekistan is a party, obliges the Uzbek government to "secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labor as a matter of urgency." The convention prohibits "slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as … forced or compulsory labor," as well as "work which, by its nature of the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children."

The ILO recommendation that accompanies the convention says that the worst forms of child labor include work with dangerous machinery or tools; work under particularly difficult conditions, such as long hours or during the night, or work that does not allow for the possibility of returning home each day; and work that may expose children to hazardous substances or to temperatures damaging to their health.

The "Cotton Quota" and Poor Working Conditions

Local activists, as well as children and adults, forced to participate in the harvest told Human Rights Watch that each child and adult was assigned a "cotton quota" - an amount the person was required to harvest daily on threat of punishment. The daily quota for adults and older children was 60 kilograms, and for younger children ranged from 40 to 50 kilograms. Children and adults worked long hours, 10 to 12 hours a day in many cases. They received little or no pay for their work and in some cases were made to pay fines for not meeting daily quotas.

Under orders from the prime minister's office and members of cabinet, regional and local officials, school officials, farm administrators, and police required the workers to undertake arduous physical work, sometimes in extreme heat or cold. They provided no protective clothing despite the intensive use of defoliants harmful to humans on the cotton, and often failed to give workers access to clean drinking water during their work shifts. Civil society activists who monitored the harvest reported dozens of cases across Uzbekistan in which children were left exhausted and suffering from malnutrition after weeks of arduous physical work.

The authorities also failed to provide children and adults with adequate accommodations. Adult and child workers were housed together in school gymnasiums, village cinemas, and meeting halls of administrative buildings. They slept on the floor and often lacked access to potable water, adequate food, and hygienic sanitation facilities.

Regional authorities, police, farm administrators, and school officials threatened children that they would be punished if they failed to work in the fields, including with expulsion from school or the loss of student housing. Authorities threatened families who protested with police visits.

The Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, which issues regular, detailed reports on the cotton harvest and forced labor of children and adults, reported based on their on-the-ground research that authorities informed parents that if they did not wish for their children to pick cotton, they would be required to write a formal letter of refusal, pay a fine, and in some cases, hire someone to pick cotton in the child's place. The group also reported that teachers in the southern Kashkadarya region visited homes to obtain letters of "confirmation" from parents stating their children would participate in the harvest. Families whose children were forced to participate in the cotton harvest reported similar practices to Human Rights Watch in phone interviews.

During the 2012 cotton harvest, civil society activists, and the independent radio station Ozodlik, reported cases of police or school officials beating children for not meeting their quotas, or for leaving the fields without permission. In September, the deputy rector of a university in the southern city of Termez said in an interview to Radio Ozodlik:

Should we let them loose instead of being strict with them? We only have one demand, to pick cotton and fulfill targets assigned by the mayor of the region, which is 60 kilos per day. We don't ask for anything else. We might have slapped [them] one or two times when they misbehaved.

 

In January 2012, a video circulated widely on YouTube showed the dean of the National University of Karakalpakstan, an autonomous region in northwest Uzbekistan, apparently beating students for not meeting their cotton quotas during the 2011 harvest. A resident of Karakalpakstan who participated in the cotton harvest confirmed to Human Rights Watch that such beatings by school officials are commonplace.

Ozodlik and the Uzbek-German Forum, reported that 18-year-old Navruz Muyzinov was beaten to death by police officers in Shahrisabz on October 6, 2012, when he left his assigned cotton field before meeting his cotton quota.

According to a letter to Radio Ozodlik from an anonymous source who said he witnessed the episode, Muyzinov went to pick cotton that day instead of his mother. Feeling sick, he left the fields early. On the road he was stopped by two police officers, who quarreled with Muyzinov and beat him. Muyzinov was later taken to a Shahrisabz hospital, where he died that evening. A Shahrisabz district official who wished to remain anonymous told Radio Ozodlik, on October 10, that authorities questioned 24 people in connection with the incident, and authorized a medical examination to determine the exact cause of death. Human Rights Watch has not been able to further verify these accounts or confirm what further steps, if any, authorities have taken.

In October 2011, authorities expelled 12 students from the Andijan Medical Institute for refusing to pick cotton, referring to Order 204-324 from the Ministry of Higher and Secondary Education, issued in 2009, which says that "work by students in the cotton fields is equivalent to practical training that is needed for professional development," according to local activists who obtained the order.

Health and Safety Risks

The France-based Association for Human Rights in Central Asia (AHRCA) has documented several cases of children over the past three years who died in a variety of accidents related to the cotton harvest.

In October 2011, a tractor ran over "Nodir N.," a Bukhara university student, as he left the cotton field in the evening darkness. Witnesses reported that "Nodir N." had been suffering exhaustion and fatigue at the time of the accident. Human Rights Watch has not been able to verify the exact circumstances of "Nodir N.'s" death.

In November 2010, 12-year-old "Husan. H" and his sister, 11-year-old "Gulnoza G." (not their real names), died after being struck by a car as they were walking back from the cotton fields to their temporary lodging. Cotton fields and the temporary lodging where cotton workers typically stay are adjacent to major highways with high-speed traffic.

Radio Ozodlik and the Uzbek-German Forum reported that an 18-year-old student in Jizzakh, Aziz Bahtiyorov, died of a heart attack in a cotton field brought on by severe dehydration and exhaustion on September 30, 2012. Residents of Bahtiyorov's village told Radio Ozodlik and the Uzbek-German Forum that Bahtiyorov suddenly fell to the ground during cotton-harvesting. Polat Boboev, chief doctor at Jizzakh regional hospital, confirmed that Bahtiyorov had died due to a heart attack, citing a medical examination. Human Rights Watch has not been able to further verify this account.

Intensification of Forced Adult Labor

During the 2012 harvest, the Uzbek government intensified its practice of forcing adults to pick cotton. The state mobilized large numbers of government employees, including teachers, doctors, nurses, health care workers, bank staff, non-ranking military, and the staff of government ministries. While authorities have always relied on forced adult labor for the cotton harvest - and the government tightly controls information about the numbers of state employees - representatives of the Cotton Campaign, Ezgulik, the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, and the Uzbek-German Forum estimate that the figure increased significantly in 2012. Among state workers mobilized to pick cotton, interviews by these groups revealed that approximately one-half to two-thirds of all school teachers were forcibly mobilized to pick cotton for intervals of ten days to two weeks.

The central government tasked various ministries and state institutions with designating a certain percentage of their staff to pick cotton, and administrators scheduled shifts of their personnel to participate in the harvest for periods of two to three weeks, local activists who interviewed cotton workers told Human Rights Watch. When one group returned from the fields, a new one would be sent out until the cotton quota for that government ministry or institution had been met.

Human Rights Watch, the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, the Uzbek-German Forum, and the Cotton Campaign found that the authorities set quotas for adults of between 60 and 80 kilograms of cotton per day, depending on the region. The work routine was harsh, with the day starting as early as 4:30 a.m. and lasting until late into the evening. If a worker failed to deliver the expected quota, he or she would have the remainder deducted from his or her salary or be compelled to "purchase" the remainder from other local workers.

Participation in the harvest is compulsory. The Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan reported in October, for example, that workers in a chemical factory in the city of Chirchik were made to sign "obligation" forms in 2011 and 2012, binding them to participate in the cotton harvest. An "obligation" form provided to the rights group, on file with Human Rights Watch, states:

Member of the cotton-harvesting brigade No. _ 2011

I [surname, first and middle name] entering voluntarily into the cotton brigade, formed for the 2011 cotton-harvesting season, take on the obligation to harvest cotton purely, not to leave behind seeds {check seeds}, not to spill any on the ground, not to leave my brigade without reason, and to fulfill the commands of the head of the farming cooperative and the chief of the population employment center. Signing this three-sided obligation I have an understanding of this situation. If I violate the above obligation then let legal and other administrative penalties be applied to me.

Surname, first and middle names, date

Workers provided with this form were ordered not to speak about it with anyone outside the factory or face losing their jobs. A similar form distributed in the Namangan region of Uzbekistan, on file with Human Rights Watch, states that if the individual skips work he "agrees to be charged with violations of the criminal code of Uzbekistan."

Reduced Access to Health Care, Education

The mass mobilization of doctors, nurses, teachers, and other government workers reduces access to essential services for citizens, including health care and education. While it is impossible to determine the exact number of government workers the authorities mobilized during the cotton harvest across the country, the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan and the Cotton Campaign reported that approximately 11,000 doctors and nurses in Tashkent alone were sent to a neighboring province, where they were forced to pick cotton.

"Nargiza N.," a gynecologist from Bukhara, reported to representatives of the Cotton Campaign that all staff at her hospital were forced to pick cotton. The only exception, she said, was for women with children under 4. The other way to avoid participation in the harvest was to hire a substitute to pick their assigned quota, or to pay a fee to the government institution that employs them.

The Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan and other civil society activists reported that many hospitals and medical clinics across Uzbekistan were left empty and unable to treat patients during significant portions of September and October. "Dildora D.," of Bukhara, told a Cotton Campaign representative: "A couple weeks ago, my niece was ill, so I took her to the children's hospital. They said that no doctors were available. So we were forced to take her all the way to the regional hospital."

The mass mobilization of teachers for the cotton harvest also meant the loss of significant instruction time for Uzbekistan's pupils and increased class sizes. In Jizzakh, for example, an English teacher explained to a Cotton Campaign representative that teachers are sent to pick cotton for 10-day shifts. While these teachers are picking cotton, the subjects they teach are not taught or are taught by other teachers in combined classes. At one of the three cotton fields a Cotton Campaign representative visited during the 2012 harvest, several teachers were picking cotton alongside military personnel in uniform.

More than twenty activists in various cities in at least six regions said the authorities ordered a larger number of private companies to send workers to the cotton fields in 2012 than in previous years. Whereas the authorities only required a few companies to send workers for one- or two-day shifts in 2011, activists reported that the authorities demanded that many private companies send their workers for up to two-week shifts in 2012. Tashkent-based activists said that the authorities required the gas company Tashkent Gas Ltd. to pay a fine to exempt its own employees from picking cotton and made several transportation companies contribute vehicles, drivers, and fuel. A former member of parliament who cooperates with local activists reported that the authorities arrested the owners of two private bus companies in Tashkent in September after they resisted this directive. The state-run media said the men had been dealing auto parts on the black market.

Several sources, including the Uzbek-German Forum, reported that the authorities forced workers at the General Motors (GM) Uzbekistan plant in the Andijan region to pick cotton for the second year in a row. A GM worker interviewed by independent human rights activists said that during the 2012 cotton harvest, GM workers had to pick cotton between September 20 and October 22.

Denied Benefits for Refusal to Pick Cotton

The Uzbek authorities strictly punish government workers who refuse to participate in the harvest, threatening them with the loss of their jobs, salary cuts, or loss of pensions. In 2011, civil society groups reported that the authorities fired a Tashkent city official the day after he refused to provide city buses to transport cotton pickers.

Mahalla (neighborhood) committees, community organizations that act as de facto neighborhood-level authorities, also actively recruited their own residents to pick cotton, applying various forms of pressure. The Uzbek-German Forum reported that mahalla committees, which are also responsible for distributing welfare benefits, threatened single mothers and lower-income people with the loss of subsidies and other critical benefits if they refused to participate.

Farmers Without Rights

Human Rights Watch found that in 2012, as in previous years, the Uzbek government exercised full control over the cotton industry. The government owns all land, determines the use of the land, sets production quotas and the price of raw cotton to be purchased from farmers, controls input such as fertilizer, and is the sole buyer of cotton. Farmers are contractually obligated to dedicate a certain percentage of their land to cotton production, to produce an annual quota of cotton, and to sell it to the government at the government's fixed price. Farmers lack access to credit and a majority are financially unable to invest in improvements for the production operation.

Farmers sign leases for the land with the government. The Uzbek-German Forum and other local activists reported that the percentages and quotas are written in the annual renewal contracts.

If a farmer fails to produce the assigned quota of cotton, the regional governor (hokim) will assign the land to another farmer. During the harvest, regional hokims oversee production rates closely. Farmers reported to several activists that regional hokims convene daily meetings to receive reports from all the farmers in their regions. At many of these meetings, farmers who attended them reported, the regional hokims have verbally and physically abused farmers who do not meet their quotas.

Blocking the ILO, Cracking Down on Activists

There is no evidence that the government has taken any meaningful steps to implement ILO Conventions on the Abolition of Forced Labor (Convention No. 105), the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor (Convention No. 182), or the Minimum Age of Employment (Convention No. 138), which it ratified in 1997, 2008, and 2009, respectively. The government's "National Action Plan" to address the issue of forced child labor, adopted in 2008, and legislative amendments in December 2009 have led to no reduction in the use of forced labor for cotton production.

For the past four years, the Uzbek government has rebuffed ILO requests to gain access for its independent monitors to visit Uzbekistan to assess its compliance with its international obligations. In addition, in 2011 and 2012 the government denied visas to the Human Rights Committee of the German Bundestag, several members of which had openly expressed an interest in the issue of forced labor, and sought to visit the country during the cotton harvest.

Authorities regularly harass activists who try to monitor the cotton harvest, Human Rights Watch found. Police and security personnel strictly patrol cotton fields to prevent independent monitoring.In 2011, activists reported that teachers had been instructed to be "vigilant" about the possible presence of rights activists and journalists in the cotton fields, and to tell them that the children were working with their families.

During the 2012 harvest, the Uzbek German Forum for Human Rights reported, the authorities forbade adults and children in Tashkent from taking mobile phones to the cotton fields, apparently to prevent them from photographing or videotaping their work there. At each field it was the job of the supervisor to call the police if anyone was observed filming or taking pictures.

In 2012, authorities harassed, intimidated, and arrested Uzbek human rights activists and independent journalists who sought to monitor the cotton harvest. Several members of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan reported to Human Rights Watch that they were detained by authorities when they tried to photograph empty classrooms or interact with cotton workers in the fields.

In September, during the peak of the cotton harvest, authorities arrested Uktam Pardaev, a rights activist well known for his reporting on police abuses, torture, and forced labor in the central province of Jizzakh, a region dominated by the cotton harvest. Several officers beat Pardaev during the arrest. The authorities held him for over 15 days on minor administrative charges of "hooliganism" and "resisting arrest." Pardaev told Human Rights Watch he believes his arrest was part of the authorities' effort to prevent him from monitoring the rights of children and adults working in the cotton harvest.

Similarly, 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 children forced to pick cotton. The same year school officials in Jizzakh 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 with his human rights work.

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