Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that Uzbekistan's government has recalled some students and workers from forced labor in the cotton fields, but that more political will is needed to completely end the practice in the Central Asian country.
In an October 5 statement citing the Cotton Campaign, a global labor-rights group, HRW said university students and some health and education workers were allowed to leave the cotton fields, but "other workers remained there involuntarily or faced extortion to pay workers to replace them if they left."
"It is crucial for Uzbekistan's international partners to urge the government to allow all involuntary workers to return from the fields without penalty, including being required to pay for someone else to work in their place, and to monitor and publicly report on findings," Umida Niyazova, director of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF) was quoted as saying in the HRW statement.
Uzbekistan, one of the world's leading cotton exporters, for years has mobilized students as well as staff at schools and medical clinics and hospitals to pick cotton. It gave up using minors in 2015 under international pressure that included boycott campaigns.
On September 21, Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov ordered officials to recall students as well as education and medical workers who had been picking cotton under threat of punishment since the harvest began on September 10.
They had been summoned to the cotton fields despite an August decree banning recruiting these professional categories. Students began to leave various regions for home later on September 21.
"Bringing students home from the fields is a significant change and shows the importance of political will in ending forced labor," Niyazova said.
The move to end the practice follows reforms by President Shavkat Mirziyoev, who came to power after authorities announced the death of Islam Karimov, who had ruled with an iron fist since the Soviet era, in September 2016.
Mirziyoev addressed forced labor in his speech to the UN General Assembly on September 19.
"It was the first time an Uzbek president has acknowledged the issue on the international stage, after a decade of campaigning by the Cotton Campaign and allies and international pressure from governments and other stakeholders," the HRW statement said.
The Cotton Campaign is a global coalition of human rights, labor, investor, and business organizations dedicated to eradicating child labor and forced labor in cotton production.
HRW urged the Uzbek government to allow rights activists to freely monitor the scaling-down of the practice.
"It is premature to speak about meaningful reform in Uzbekistan if activists are still threatened with detention and violence," said Steve Swerdlow, a Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.
"President Mirziyoev's government should send an unambiguous message to independent activists and cotton monitors that their work is valued and that they will be free to monitor this cotton harvest without retaliation or interference," Swerdlow said.