What looked like a victory this month for Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev, his government, and their reform pledges instead risks becoming just another example of empty promises in Central Asia's most populous country.
On March 19, around 280 workers from the Indorama Agro cotton farm gathered for the founding meeting of Uzbekistan’s first independent labor union, Halq Birligi (People's Unity).
The Berlin-based Uzbek Forum for Human Rights called it a "historic day," but the victory did not last long.
By March 24, Uzbek Forum was reporting that local officials were harassing members of the new union.
"Leaders of Xalq Birligi...reported receiving calls from officials at the local administration who did not identify themselves, warning them that their involvement in union activities would cause them problems," Uzbek Forum wrote.
The report said police were also phoning union activists “demanding that they stop their organizing activities and leave the union."
The new union aims to protect the rights of Indorama Agro's workers in Syrdarya Province.
Singapore-based Indorama Agro has been active in Uzbekistan since 2010, mainly in the cotton industry.
According to Uzbek Forum, the Uzbek government made some 40,000 hectares of irrigated land available to Indorama Agro in four districts -- the Kasbi and Nishan districts of Kashkadarya Province and the Akaltyn and Sardoba districts of Syrdarya Province -- in August 2018 to "organize modern cotton-textile production."
Indorama Agro established cluster farms, a controversial scheme that allows companies to invest money and reorganize land and local labor to boost efficiency in production.
Critics argue that this system has simply allowed the wealthy -- some with alleged connections to senior Uzbek officials -- to privatize agriculturally based businesses in the areas, depriving local farmers of their land and stripping local workers of many of their rights.
And some Uzbek farmers have alleged that they are being forced to work on cluster farms.
RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, reported in January that more than 100 textile workers from an Indorama Agro cluster farm in Kashkadarya Province’s Kasbi district demonstrated after they were laid off without being paid accrued wages.
One of the allegations was that Indorama Agro had dispensed with many full-time contract workers and switched to three-month contracts without sick pay, pensions, or compensation for overtime.
Some workers at Indorama Agro clusters complain of low wages, and Uzbek Forum quoted one farm worker as saying he had worked for two years without a vacation or holiday leave.
Halq Birligi is vowing to change that and otherwise work to rein in alleged abuses on cluster farms in Syrdarya Province, as well as to improve working conditions for agricultural laborers.
But the independent union appears to be running into some of the same obstacles that other local rights activists and opposition political parties have experienced.
Uzbek Forum reported that on March 19, when Halq Birligi unionists intended to hold their meeting, "workers had rented a meeting room to hold their election but when they arrived, the building administrator refused them entry, telling them the room was unavailable due to ‘urgent repairs.'"
Uzbek Forum said workers then moved to a nearly teahouse, "but the electricity was cut off soon after they began. They continued their meeting outside, with workers holding up their cell-phone flashlights to provide light."
Roza Agaydarova was elected head of the union.
According to Uzbek Forum, Agaydarova said on March 23 that "she received a call from a regional representative of the Federation of Labor Unions of Uzbekistan, the national union federation, which is not considered independent from the government, and was told that according to the laws of Uzbekistan, they had to join the federation, otherwise their union is invalid."
Uzbek Forum cited a guarantee in Uzbekistan's new law on labor unions ensuring workers the right to join the organization of their choice and the right to avoid being forced into joining an organization.
Ozodlik contacted the head of the Syrdarya provincial branch of the Federation of Labor Unions of Uzbekistan, Rustambek Tursunmuradov, who confirmed he had phoned Agaydarova and told her that forming an independent trade union was a bad idea.
Asked why his organization had not defended the rights of farmers working for Indorama Agro, Tursunmuradov said that when those individuals started working for Indorama Agro they lost their membership in the Federation of Labor Unions of Uzbekistan.
After the death of Uzbekistan's first president, Islam Karimov, in 2016, Mirziyoev came to power promising better working conditions, including the eradication of forced labor in the cotton fields.
Most observers agree that there has been significant progress toward ending forced labor in Uzbekistan. But the cluster-farm idea is not only unpopular; it could be counterproductive if the goal truly is to improve working conditions for agricultural workers.
The executive director of the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, Umida Niyazova, credited Mirziyoev's government for showing "the political will to combat forced labor and open its economy."
But, she added, "The way it treats the first independent trade union is a test of the seriousness of its reforms, and the world is watching."