In late August, a civil court judge in Tashkent ordered independent economist Yuliy Yusupov to publish a retraction and apologize in the media to Uzbekipaksanoat, the Uzbek Silk Association, for an article he published in March this year, which revealed corruption and the use of coercion in the production of silkworm cocoons. Yusupov, director of the Tashkent-based Center for Economic Development, stands by his assessment of the silk sector and has filed an appeal. The appeal court’s decision will be a key test of whether independent researchers in Uzbekistan are free to publish fact-based analyses, particularly when they are unpalatable to the state or the businesses it protects.
Uzbek Forum has interviewed dozens of workers and farmers who have reported the loss of livelihoods caused by illegal land confiscations, lack of access to land, mass redundancies and abuse of labor contracts, as well as attempts to dismantle the trade union. Furthermore, farmers contracted to deliver cotton to Indorama Agro complain of delayed payments for the cotton they have delivered and exploitative contracts that include no minimum price for their cotton. Workers and stakeholders who speak out, risk retaliation and intimidation. Following interviews with Uzbek Forum monitors, farmers and workers have been interrogated by security service officials and warned against speaking to “international organizations”.
During the 2022 cotton harvest, Uzbek Forum monitors found no evidence of systematic, government-imposed forced labor for the second consecutive year. While this is a strong indication that efforts by the government to eliminate child and adult forced labor have taken hold, isolated incidents of forced labor and extortion to pay for the cotton harvest were identified in some districts with low populations and insufficient numbers of pickers and during the later stages of the harvest when less cotton in the fields makes recruitment of voluntary pickers more challenging. In general however, wages for pickers were sufficient to recruit adequate numbers to the fields, providing important supplementary income to rural communities.
The Senate approved the law, which provides for punishment up to criminal liability for involving teachers in forced labor. Saida Mirziyoyeva called it a big phenomenon in the field of education.
Since the privatization of Uzbekistan’s cotton sector began in 2019, farmers throughout the country have repeatedly complained of illegal land confiscations and exploitative contracts with private cotton clusters. Blank contracts with no minimum price for their cotton, inflated prices for fuel and fertilizers, failure to pay for delivered cotton, along with unrealistically high production targets, which can result in land confiscation if unfulfilled, have plunged thousands of farmers into debt and despair.
BY CHANGING THE STATUS OF EMPLOYEES TO “SERVICE PROVIDERS”, INDORAMA AGRO IS DECIMATING UNION MEMBERSHIP. INTERNATIONAL STAKEHOLDERS INCLUDING EBRD, IFC AND BCI MUST ENSURE COMPLIANCE WITH NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL LABOR STANDARDS.
On December 28, 2022, 392 workers of Indorama Agro in the Syrdarya region of Uzbekistan were told that their contracts as Nano Unit Workers (NUWs) would not be extended. Instead, they would be given new “service contracts”, whereby the former NUWs would be required to grow cotton and grain for the company for a paltry fee and assume all of the associated entrepreneurial risks. The new contracts effectively ended their employment relationship with the company although the work and activities set out in them are almost identical to those in their previous contracts.
The annual cotton harvest in Uzbekistan, which began in stages in early September, is coming to an end. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, 21,379 brigades covering nearly two million pickers were formed for the 2022 cotton harvest season.
Uzbekistan’s 2022 annual cotton harvest is currently in full swing, with farmers across the country selling their cotton not to the state, as was the case for the past several decades, but to clusters – private enterprises that process cotton into yarn or finished products.
The report outlines how, despite efforts to increase transparency and accountability in public procurement and public sector hiring, gaps in legislation and a lack of enforcement hinder genuine progress in these areas. Access to Information (ATI) remains another key challenge, as information requests are often refused or ignored by public authorities and judicial challenges to such refusals tend to be ineffective. Furthermore, loopholes in anti-money laundering regulations – such as the absence of a definition of ‘public official’ – and the failure to conduct due diligence checks pose great corruption risks that must be urgently addressed.
Will international donors legitimize Uzbekistan’s tightening grip on civil society?