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?
The modernization of agriculture in Uzbekistan, for which Uzbekistan has received millions of dollars in investment by multilateral development banks, including the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the World Bank, has been accompanied by massive confiscations of farmland across the country.
In 2020, Indorama Agro disclosed the project’s final Environmental and Social Impact Assessment, Environmental and Social Management Plan and Livelihood Restoration Plan. These documents are intended to provide an overall picture of risks to the Bank and potentially affected communities and to serve as the basis for mitigating these risks accordingly. Bankwatch made a quality analysis of this documentation. The findings confirmed the lack of integrated impact assessment and focused risk mitigation, a participative and sustainability-led approach, and accountability. The analysis also flags non-compliance with the EBRD performance standards on impact assessment, workers’ health, biodiversity impact, land acquisition, stakeholder engagement and labour rights. The project is exclusively assessed in compliance with Uzbek regulations rather than the best available international practices (i.e. those of the WHO and ILO) and performance standards, which contradicts the EBRD’s requirements. Finally, the project documentation does not contain a comprehensive human rights risk assessment, including the risks from land acquisition and public participation, or from publicly raising concerns in an authoritarian setting.