As monitored by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), almost all citizens of Uzbekistan involved in cotton-picking this year have worked on the fields as volunteers, while the country has made titanic efforts to eradicate forced labour. However, the findings of independent human rights activists contravene the official data.
In recent decades, Uzbekistan has decreased the volume of raw cotton picked almost by one-fourth, making its production slightly over three million tonnes per year. Today the country takes sixth place in the world in the production of cotton fibre and fourth place in its export.
The authorities have repeatedly declared their intention to get rid of the cotton dependence by increasing cotton fibre processing capacities, and also by planting vegetable, legume, forage crops, intensive gardens and vineyards.
And in late November, the head of the country, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, declared his intention to suspend the state from cotton industry for three years and transfer it to concerned clusters. In his opinion, this will cease the local authorities’ practice of forced cotton-picking.
So far cotton-picking in Uzbekistan involves forced labour. Under Karimov, millions of people were forced to work on the fields, either children, or adults: teachers, medical workers, public-sector employees.
The proportion of children began to decline only after pressure of the international community on the Uzbek government. However, this burden has been put on the adults. According to various estimates, under Karimov, the number of people in the fields at harvest time reached five million people, and forced labour was a government policy.
When Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power, the situation has not change significantly. However, it is already a great achievement that the authorities have openly acknowledged the existence of forced labour in the country and have declared their intention to totally eradicate it.
This year, for the first time students have not been forced to harvesting, and the cost of a hand-picked kilogramme of “white gold” has increased to 1,000 sums. In a number of regions, extra charges have been provided. It has been the financial component that for the first time has prompted many people to go to the fields voluntarily.
However, the measures taken have not been enough. People are still being taken to the fields on a massive scale. It only means that the authorities’ intentions to eradicate forced labour during cotton-picking still remain only populist slogans that cannot be implemented without large-scale land reform.
However, after the active information campaign held by the Ministry of Employment and Labour Relations in cooperation with the ILO, the number of complaints from the public about forced cotton-picking has increased. The trust line and the hotline of the Ministry of Labour have received 1,949 calls. The Federation of Trade Unions received and processed 557 cases. 169 officials and heads of local administrations have been dismissed, downgraded or fined for violations.
For the first time this year, cooperation in monitoring has been established with local activists. According to Deputy Minister of Labour Nodirbek Yakubov, such cooperation is useful, as it allows to effectively solve the problem.
“Before this cooperation, we had only 45 cases related to forced labour. And this year the number of cases is growing. These are the consequences of cooperation with human rights activists, civil activists who directly monitor the media and the Internet,” the official said.
“It takes time to change the system”
International experts have noted progress in the eradication of forced labour. On November 21, ILO experts said that during the cotton campaign of 2018, 93 per cent of cotton-pickers have participated in this process voluntarily. Last year, that number was only 87 per cent.
Observers have not recorded systematic involvement of students, teachers and medical workers in cotton-picking. The report says that the increase in the price of a kilogramme of cotton has stimulated internal migration: after finishing the picking in their area, many self-organised groups of pickers went to other districts and oblasts.
However, experts do not deny there are still cases of forced cotton-picking. But, according to the chief technical advisor of the ILO’s Third-Party Monitoring Project, Jonas Astrup, only a few such cases have been recorded this year, and the overall situation is not systematic.
“It takes time to change the system. The main thing is the political will in the country. But we must be realistic. This is not an easy problem, people should change the way they think, agriculture needs to be modernised,” the expert said.
Human rights activists don’t see any changes
Meanwhile, Uzbek human rights activists who participated in the monitoring of the cotton campaign of 2018 and collaborated on this issue with the Ministry of Labour, assess the situation differently.
In an interview to reporters, a well-known human rights activist Elena Urlaeva said that their group had repeatedly witnessed the massive transportation of people from one region to another. According to her, the authorities transported cotton pickers from one region to another by trains and bus columns. And she saw real volunteers only once. At the same time, the human rights activist does not deny that many of the cotton pickers have earned really good money this year.
The fact that the forced labour practice this year, just like in the past, was systematic and widespread, was noted by associate researcher of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, Alisher Ilkhamov. According to him, the forced labour situation in Uzbekistan reflected in the ILO report causes deep concern of human rights activists, experts and academicians.
“In the cotton sector, there is still a strictly centralised command-administration system, the so-called top-down quotas and mandatory for farmers and local authorities. Khokims of districts and oblasts are still personally responsible for the fulfilment of planned tasks of raw cotton delivery to purchasing centres. And this system is inevitably based on the need to attract forced labour on a massive scale. The ILO’s “study” completely ignores this political economy of the cotton sector in Uzbekistan,” Ilkhamov said.
According to some experts, there may be few reasons of such differences in estimations of cotton campaigns in Uzbekistan. One of them is the methodology of monitoring. An expert of Cotton Campaign, who once cooperated with ILO, Andrei Mrost, told about the nuances of the methodology.
According to him, the key strategic mistake in ILO’s monitoring is the shift of focus of monitoring from the public system of child and forced labour to merely child and forced labour.
“ILO’s observers have initially said that the state allegedly wanted to eradicate forced labour and needed their help. So they started driving thousands of kilometres across Uzbekistan in order to find children on the fields and ask them, who were threatened by the authorities, about who send them to pick cotton,” expert said.
ILO justifies its findings with its surveys held by hired consultants. According to Alisher Ilkhamov, the so-called quantitative studies of politically sensitive topics in an authoritarian state are difficult to hold.
“Even if the researcher doesn’t garble the data and does his work honestly, the results of the survey don’t reflect the real situation due to the social expectedness of answers to interviewers’ questions regarding politics or attitude to the state policy. And forced labour is one of such politically risky topics,” he said.
So it turns out that monitors from international organisations, in the presence of officials every year, who are directed from above to force people to the fields, ask these people whether they voluntarily pick cotton or not. Fearing to lose their jobs, they predictably answer that they are volunteers.
Ilkhamov believes that in the Uzbek environment it would be more productive to use the so-called qualitative method of research: interactive in-depth interviews, focus groups, and insider’s view. Then the result would be different.
Every man to his trade
Experts don’t deny the desire of the ILO Secretariat to establish close cooperation with Uzbekistan. It may happen that this strategy of rapprochement can be one of the reasons of such different estimates in the cotton-picking monitoring.
“In exchange for providing an opportunity to open an office there and establish cooperation and dialogue with the government of Uzbekistan, the ILO Secretariat has obviously found it necessary to make concessions in assessing the situation in the country,” Ilkhamov said.
In this case, the expert advises to consider the report of the ILO mission as a diplomatic action, rather than academically objective and fair research that would meet international standards.
Expert Andrei Mrost refers to the actions of international organisations as a conspiracy involving the government of Uzbekistan, the ILO and the World Bank, which is the customer of the Third-Party Monitoring report – the ILO project. In his interview, he points to a direct conflict of interest. The reason, in his opinion, lies in the projects that the World Bank implements in Uzbekistan. If they recognise that Uzbekistan uses child and forced labour, problems could arise with the projects.
Positive findings of the ILO are beneficial to Uzbekistan. The state seeks to break out of international isolation and open up global markets for its cotton and textiles. At the same time, Alisher Ilkhamov believes the country is not ready to pay the full price – to reform its agricultural sector.
In short, Uzbekistan has turned into a playing field, where a fixed match has just ended and no losers have been determined. Each team has received its prize and all the players have been satisfied with the result. Except, perhaps, viewers who have expected fair play and honest achievements.
This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.