No More Child Labour In Uzbekistan Cotton Fields?

Through September, Uzbekistan (Uzbek), who exports 10% of the worlds cotton, making up 20% of the country’s total trade output[1], complete their cotton harvest. Uzbekistan has spent years being accused of both child labour and forced labour abuses during their cotton harvest. Uzbekistan appears to have used state sponsored forced labour, where civil servants such as teachers and doctors, as well as thousands of school children have been forced to be part of the cotton-picking process. Uzbekistan has faced international pressure due to the prevalence of this state sponsored forced labour, and has outwardly shown to try to improve the situation. Due to this, the US Department of Labor (USDOL) has moved to take Uzbekistan off of their Child Labor watch list, but they will remain on the Forced Labor list.

 

This decision comes as a reinforcement of the international and national pressure placed on unethically sourced cotton. Thousands of Australians have seen the injustice of the Uzbek cotton harvest and have sent thousands and thousands of postcards to businesses and politicians to call for the end of child labour in cotton harvests. The beginning of actions in the right direction by the Uzbek government is a testament to the passion and work of those Australian campaigners. This campaign has been led by the Cotton Campaign, which STOP THE TRAFFIK is a part of. But the job is not yet finished, and more concern and attention will be required to make Uzbekistan a free and fair society for all of its workers.

 

Uzbekistan has made apparent moves to improve its child labour problems. In 2017, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev made a speech to the UN General Assembly in which he committed to addressing all forms of forced labour in Uzbekistan[2]. The ILO has reported a huge drop in the number of school children being used in the cotton harvest. The USDOL has “determined that the incidence of child labour in the production of cotton in Uzbekistan has been significantly reduced, and available evidence supports the removal of child labour”[3]. The report also states that accounts of child labour from independent activists and private citizens have come only in small numbers. Unlike previous years, “upon receiving allegations of child labour from independent activists, the government made efforts to investigate and remediate such cases”[4] The promising words from the Uzbek government suggest political space is opening up and slave like conditions in the harvest are shrinking, especially in cases of children, prompting the USDOL to move Uzbekistan from the Child Labor list.

 

However not all reports agree. The quota system that runs the harvest remains, and the USDOL suggests more than 300,000 adults were forced to pick cotton in the 2017 harvest.[5] Although less children were sent out to work in the harvest, some children were locked out of kindergartens unless their parents picked cotton or paid for replacement workers.[6] As Freedom United describe, “Ultimately it turns out that when one population group is freed from cotton picking, the burden falls on other population groups.”[7] Suggestions are that the relaxation of a forced child labour force has only led to an increased work load for the adults who continue to be forced into the labour of cotton picking.

 

It appears that Uzbekistan political elite are reconciling with the fact they must improve child labour in their cotton harvest and have made positive strides in such. However, the remaining of the quota system and the harshness of the government’s stance on fulfilling these quotas, along with inept implementation of the governments new position on child labour on a localised scale perhaps, as the Uzbek-German Forum Suggests, makes this move dangerous as it could prematurely diminish the government’s incentive to “translate its recent commitments into action to end systemic forced and child labour.”[8]

 


[1] International Cotton Advisory Committee, ‘Cotton This Week’, https://www.icac.org/cotton_info/publications/samples/weekly_estimates/8february05.pdf (2005)

[2] US Department of Labor, ‘2018 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, https://www.dol.gov/sites/default/files/documents/ilab/ListofGoods.pdf, (2018)

[3] US Department of Labor, ‘2018 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor’

[4] US Department of Labor, ‘2018 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor’

[5] US Department of Labor, ‘2018 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor’

[6] Cotton Campaign, ‘End Forced Labour in Central Asia’, Letter to USDOL, (2018)

[7] Freedom United, ‘Who Will Pick the Cotton in Uzbekistan’, https://www.freedomunited.org/news/who-pick-cotton-uzbekistan/, (2017)

[8] The Uzbek-German Forum, ‘We want farmers to have full freedom’: No Need for Forced Labor when Farmers are Empowered to Pay Decent Wages: Spring Cotton Fieldwork 2018’ (2018)