The much heralded privatisation of the Central Asian state’s cotton sector has led to claims of exploitation. But workers are fighting back
The EU has accepted the Republic of Uzbekistan as the 9th beneficiary country of the special incentive arrangement for sustainable development and good governance (GSP+) under the unilateral Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP). The EU will start applying preferential tariffs for products imported from Uzbekistan under this arrangement from 10 April 2021.
According to the state register of NGOs, 9,200 non-governmental organizations, national and regional, are registered and operating in Uzbekistan today. Meanwhile, the vast majority of these organizations are branches of large quasi-governmental NGOs (GONGOs) created by the state. Registration of independent NGOs is in fact a cumbersome, painful process and, despite criticism by international human rights defenders, Uzbekistan is in no hurry to change the rules to make it easier for civil society to formally register as independent organizations.
Despite significant progress on the eradication of forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector, new challenges have come to light since the privatization process began. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of farmland have now been transferred to private operators (clusters) leaving many farming families without work and in poverty. Because only one cluster operates per district, farmers who have retained their land are now trapped in contracts to deliver cotton to the cluster in their district, leaving them without the power to negotiate favorable terms. Instead of the state, de facto private monopolies have emerged that control entire districts.
On March 19, 2021, over 200 employees of Indorama Agro in the Syrdarya region of Uzbekistan held a meeting to establish the independent trade union, “Xalq Birligi” (People’s Unity), the first of its kind in the country. The documents required for formal registration of the union will be filed with the Ministry of Justice in the coming days. Xalq Birligi will be open to any employees of Indorama Agro who wish to join.
The issues of harassment, bullying, and violence against women in Uzbekistan are being covered with greater frequency in the national mass media. Lately, events involving a Polish lady reporter who was going through the process of extending her accreditation and faced harassment became a subject of a broad discussion. And while the accreditation issue was eventually dealt with in a most expeditious manner, the allegations of harassment were never investigated and the perpetrator was never brought to justice.
The first independent and democratic trade union organization has been formed in Uzbekistan. On March 19, 2021, 335 workers from the Indorama cotton plantations founded “Xalq Birligi” (Peoples’ Unity) in response to low wages and deteriorating working conditions in the transnational company, Indorama.
On March 19, 2021, over 200 employees of Indorama Agro LLC gathered in Sardoba in Syrdarya region to hold a founding meeting to establish an independent trade union. The employees were forced to hold the meeting outside as they were refused entry to a previously agreed conference room 20 minutes prior to the start of the meeting because of “urgent” repairs. It was agreed that employees could use another room, but the electricity was then unexpectedly cut off for reasons unknown.
Indorama issues its agricultural workers, who work all year round, with “civil legal agreements”, as opposed to employment contracts. They are thus considered seasonal and not permanent workers which means that they have no entitlement to social protections such as sick pay, social benefits or holiday pay.
Apparel brands are said to be eyeing Uzbekistan as a potential source of cotton, particularly with Xinjiang cotton now the subject of US sanctions. A process of reform has made significant progress on forced labour issues in Uzbekistan, but now another issue has arisen: land-grabs. In this special piece for Apparel Insider, Lynn Schweisfurth, a consultant for Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, suggests the privatisation Uzbekistan’s cotton sector is seeing huge tracts of land being transferred to private operators for cotton cultivation, with farmers coerced into “voluntarily” giving up their land leases, with devastating effects on rural livelihoods.