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Uzbekistan Praised For Curtailing Forced Labor In Cotton Harvest. Activists Say Not So Fast.


Workers in a cotton field outside Bukhara, Uzbekistan.

In Uzbekistan, it's called white gold -- cotton, one of the country's most important cash-crop exports.

For decades, hundreds of thousands of Uzbeks have been forced to do the annual backbreaking work of harvesting the crop. Last year, according to the International Labor Organization, around 170,000 people were forced to pick cotton, a sizable number but one the agency says showed "major progress" in eliminating the problem.

Not so fast, say Uzbek and Western rights activists: While forced child labor has dramatically decreased, there's still a significant level of forced labor involving adults, and the government's production system perpetuates the problem.

The divergent conclusions about what is one of Uzbekistan's most problematic economic issues comes as the Central Asian nation struggles to open up its economy and attract foreign investment after years of isolation under the late president, Islam Karimov.

Despite cotton being a water-intensive crop, Soviet planners targeted Uzbekistan's arid climate for growing it, and cultivation increased to generate up to 70 percent of all Soviet cotton production by the late 1970s.

But with a lack of technology and capital investment that deepened after the Soviet collapse, harvesting cotton continued to be a human effort, and millions were forced every year to labor in the fields. Schools, universities, hospitals, and businesses that had no direct connection to cotton mandated their students and employees to join in the harvest.​

Named And Shamed

Over the past decade, as the annual value of Uzbekistan's cotton crop has surpassed $1 billion, Uzbek and Western activists have waged a campaign to shame international textile manufacturers and apparel companies from using Uzbek cotton harvested with forced labor.

In 2012, then-Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoev ordered an end to the use of children in picking cotton. But the practice persisted in some places, and adults were still routinely conscripted into the work.

The activists' efforts, called the Cotton Campaign, succeeded in persuading companies like Ikea, Adidas, and Tesco to pledge not to use any cotton from Uzbekistan.

After 2016, when Karimov died and Mirziyoev assumed the presidency, the country made more efforts to dismantle the system of state-organized forced labor.

In May 2018, Mirziyoev's government issued a decree aimed at completely ending forced labor. Rights groups say that despite improvements the practice has continued in the cotton industry and other sectors.

According the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency charged with promoting positive working environments around the world, the government’s reform efforts have paid off during the 2018 harvest.

"Uzbekistan demonstrated major progress in the eradication of child labor and forced labor in the cotton harvest of 2018. Forced labor during the harvest was reduced by 48 percent compared to 2017," the organization said in its latest report, released on April 1.

"A considerable number of forced labor cases were still observed, and legacy systems conducive to the exaction of forced labor have not yet been fully dismantled," the report added.​

'Significantly Reduced' But Still A 'Significant Problem'

That upbeat assessment was also reflected in a notice issued 10 days earlier by the United States, which formally announced that Uzbek cotton would be removed from an official list of products produced with child labor.

The U.S. government "determined that the use of forced child labor in the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan has been significantly reduced to isolated incidents," said the notice published in the Federal Register, the U.S. government's official printed publication of legal documents.

The Uzbek-German Forum on Human Rights, meanwhile, agreed there's been progress. However, in a report released on April 4, the group said forced labor continues to be a significant problem for adults, and a network of government agencies, state-owned enterprises, and other informal organizations continues to perpetuate the issue.

The 2018 harvest saw "some encouraging signs of progress," the group said in its report. "But despite serious efforts by the central government to curtail forced labor for some citizens, key root causes remained in place."

That includes how the government sets the overall quota for the annual cotton harvest, and how regional officials then order various public and private companies and entities to enlist people to pick.

"At the end of the day, it's still government perpetrators in a government production system," said Allison Gill, a longtime human rights activist and member of the Uzbek-German Forum.

The Mirziyoev administration has moved slowly toward undoing the legacy of the Soviet system and privatizing the production system, Gill said; for example, letting companies contract directly with farmers to grow and harvest cotton.

"I hope they solve some of these production problems, even as they proceed toward privatization," Gill told RFE/RL.

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