14 february 2017

ILO: Forced labor in Uzbekistan is not happening because we do not want to believe it

The International Labor Organization (ILO) recently published a report based on a monitoring mission on child and forced labor in the cotton fields in Uzbekistan in 2016. The findings of the ILO’s report are classed as “third-party monitoring” conducted for the World Bank (WB). The purpose of the report is to determine whether forced labor in the agricultural sector is being used in projects financed by the WB. The report has prompted criticism of the bank by human rights organizations who have been reporting the issue of forced labor in the cotton industry in Uzbekistan for years based on independent fact finding and witness testimony.

Any credible monitoring has to be carried out by an independent organization and not by a “third party”, which may be inaccurate and prone to bias. A “third party” is typically an international consulting or research firm. Such companies value their reputation as honest investigators and normally do not take up projects where they cannot guarantee the independence or accuracy of the findings. In this case, the ILO as an “independent party” does not seem too concerned about its reputation. Rather, it seems more concerned about avoiding findings and conclusions which could lead to criticism of the WB.

In 1st February the WB hurriedly released a statement that Uzbekistan was “making progress on labor reforms” and that “no incidences of child and forced labor were identified in relation to World Bank-supported agriculture, water and education projects.”

It appears that the World Bank is also not particularly concerned about its reputation.

Not a Single Case?

Key findings presented in the ILO report focus on the fact that organized forced child labor in Uzbekistan has been stopped and that “the unacceptability of child labor is recognized by all sections of society.” As for the forced labor of adults, the problem, according to the ILO experts, is limited to only a “minority (of harvesters) who were recruited involuntarily”. This statement is dramatically at odds with the observations and documented facts collected by Uzbek monitors inside the country in the autumn of 2016 for the human rights organization “Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights”.

The main question surrounding the ILO’s research and its results is whether it can be regarded as truly independent. The impartiality of the research would have been guaranteed if ILO experts had conducted interviews and gathered information first hand without the intrusive and inhibiting presence of representatives of the authorities. The Federation of Trade Unions (FPU), for example, which participated in the monitoring, is fully controlled by the State. Despite this, the ILO agreed to monitor under conditions in which it was impossible to guarantee the confidentiality and security of respondents. In other words, the ILO entered into a joint “monitoring” mission with government officials and then presented their findings as objective.

© UGF, September 2016

The ILO report has ignored the numerous testimonies and documents collected in recent years by NGOs which clearly show that forced labor during the cotton harvest is widespread and takes place on the orders of the Cabinet of Ministers of Uzbekistan. The transport of people to the fields is organized by local khokimiyats. Hundreds of thousands of employees, such as doctors and teachers are sent to pick cotton under threat of dismissal. The cotton season of 2016 was no exception to this practice of mass coercion.

The joint monitoring of the ILO and the FPU with seven international experts travelled around the country for six weeks in the constant presence of FPU employees. As stated in the report, international experts were able to choose the places they wanted to visit. However, given that conversations could not be held privately with the resulting risk of retaliation by the authorities against respondents who talked too much, this privilege in itself does not make the monitoring mission independent.

During the cotton-picking season ILO representatives visited 800 sites and conducted more than 1,700 interviews with representatives of the government and quasi-governmental organizations as well as farmers, students and schoolchildren. ILO experts’ access to institutions and to the cotton fields was “excellent”, according to the report.

The ILO has gained this privileged position in terms of access by way of thanks for publicly recognizing the alleged existence of independent trade unions in Uzbekistan.

The report fails to cover the arrests or beatings of activists and journalists who had attempted to speak to people in the cotton fields without state supervision. In fact, the ILO experts did not question why the Uzbek government refused entry to the country to other international organizations and deported foreign journalists who tried to conduct interviews in the cotton fields.

According to data contained in the report, about 2.8 million people were involved in the collection of cotton (ILO research data from 2015). The ILO splits the pickers into three categories: voluntary workers, “reluctant workers” that is, those who collect cotton allegedly under peer pressure, and “significant minorities recruited involuntarily” who were called up by their boss or university rector.

According to the ILO, the so-called “reluctant” workers may constitute one third of the total number of pickers. From the report it is unclear why these people were unwilling to work but yet still left their families to pick cotton. The report makes the dubious assertion that this group could become truly voluntary collectors in future, and that they are at the moment in a kind of intermediate state. This is sufficient reason for the ILO not to include them in the number of forced workers.

In reality, picking cotton because of social pressure or having the option of agreeing to pay money not to pick cotton, do not exist. Neighborhood committees, village councils or all kinds quasi-governmental organizations which are involved in organizing the cotton harvest, all operate exclusively under the orders of the state.

Uzbekistan’s cotton pickers harvest cotton because of the very real threat of losing their jobs or losing grades at school or university. It is fear of the authorities, and not public opinion, that are the main factors in forced mobilization. Fear of punishment or of being dismissed is what motivates employees of public institutions to give half their monthly salary to pay for workers to take their place at the cotton harvest. This is a clear indication that work in the cotton harvest is indeed compulsory.

“Feedback Mechanism”

The report expressed admiration for the Uzbek government’s information campaign to raise public awareness about the unacceptability of child and forced labor, as well as the  “feedback mechanism”, which allows workers the opportunity to complain to the FPU. Messages on child and forced labor have been distributed nationwide on “836 banners, 44,500 posters, 100,000 leaflets, TV, radio and through SMS texts”, the report said.

The ILO makes the bold conclusion that ” child labor is recognized by all sections of society.” This statement is very controversial. In interviews conducted by Uzbek activists, cotton pickers regretted that more adults had now been forcibly recruited due to the lack of children picking cotton. In September 2016 The Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights documented an increase in instances of child labor over the last two years.

© UGF, September 2016
© UGF, September 2016

The tradition of child labor and the fear of the authorities in Uzbekistan is so pervasive that parents have not able to protect their children from forced labor for many years. Up until 2013, mobilization of children to the cotton harvest took place on a massive scale, but there were no protests by parents who refused to send their children to the fields. Moreover, parents often justified child labor by claiming that “work ennobles”, and that they too “had picked cotton as a child and there was nothing wrong with that”.

During the cotton season phone lines for complaints were set up in two departments: the Ministry of Labor and the FPU Uzbekistan, and, according to the report, implemented “international best practice principles in „feedback mechanisms“.

During the cotton-picking season in 2016, the FPU received 85 complaints directly related to the collection of cotton, of which only six cases of child labor were allegedly confirmed and only two cases, “presenting risk of forced labor.” Among the complaints received by the Ministry of Labor’s hotline, only five cases of child labor and nine cases of forced labor were confirmed.

Living in a Vacuum

Surprisingly, the ILO does not recognize any conflict of interest with the government bodies they have chosen to collaborate with in conducting monitoring. The FPU, The Women’s Committee and the youth movement “Kamolot”, are not only totally dependent on state institutions, but also provide support to the state in the mobilization of the population to pick cotton. Above all, the ILO strangely ignores the overall political climate in Uzbekistan. The ILO notes that the above and other registered organizations carry out national monitoring, which in future could have the “potential to become an effective supplementary instrument of supervision“.

It is deeply disconcerting that the ILO should place so much trust in the institutions of such a repressive regime. In a country where there are no civil liberties, no free press, no independent judiciary, prisons full of political prisoners, an extinct opposition, no free elections and a population used to living in a state of fear, the ILO apparently believes there are independent trade unions.

Regarding freedom of expression and association in Uzbekistan, the OSCE Observation Mission for the presidential election in Uzbekistan of December 4, 2016 concluded:

“The legal framework includes undue limitations on fundamental freedoms that can be applied in an overly restrictive and arbitrary manner. Limitations on the freedom of assembly include a one-month advance authorization requirement for holding public assemblies as well as possible sanctions is limited by cumbersome requirements for registering political parties and non=governmental organizations (NGOs), wide discretionary powers for denial of registration and deregistration, and legal and administrative impediments to their work. In 2016, the already burdensome procedure for foreign funding of NGOs was further complicated”.

At Risk Groups: Students, Teachers and Doctors

The ILO notes that the group of people at risk of forced labor include the employees of schools, colleges, medical institutions, students over the age of 18, employees of other businesses and private organizations. The ILO (accompanied by officials from the FTU) visited 190 kindergartens, 40 schools and colleges, as well as 50 medical institutions, most of which were “functioning normally”. Again this is contrary to the facts documented by activists.

The ILO report reveals that the staff of schools and kindergartens are at risk of being sent to pick cotton against their will. But to prevent this, an effective information campaign and training for officials has been rolled out along with a “feedback mechanism” for dealing with complaints. In other words, the government with one hand sends people to the fields and with the other holds seminars to explain that forced labor is bad. For some reason, best known to themselves, the ILO experts failed to notice these glaring double standards.

According to the ILO report, of the 26 institutions of higher education which experts visited, the majority were not fully functioning, as students were absent “picking cotton for a month.” The ILO seems to find this acceptable. But even here there is an inaccuracy. The cotton harvest for students lasts for one and a half to two months. The last convoy of buses with students from Samarkand State University came back from the fields in November 16, 2016.

According to the official version, the students volunteered to pick cotton and the ILO were shown receipts of their “voluntary participation” which apparently back this claim. Although the ILO has recognized that other evidence to the contrary was provided, they apparently decided that they should rely on the word of Uzbek officials. As a result, the ILO report does not consider at least 200,000 students to have been forcibly mobilized.

In fact, students are the most vulnerable and exploited groups of the population during the cotton-picking season. In view of the fact that higher education in Uzbekistan is available to no more than 10 % of the total number of applicants to universities, students who have passed the strict selection procedure do not dare to contradict the administration. They silently agree to sign “receipts of voluntary participation” and make their way to the cotton fields. It should also be noted that two thirds of students pay between $ 1,000 – $ 1,500 a year for a university education. Working on the cotton fields for one month without a single day-off will earn them a maximum of $40. Picking cotton holds no financial interest for the army of students in the fields every year.

In order to “reduce the risk of forced labor” in farms benefiting from World Bank investment, the ILO offers simple solutions. For example, as noted in the report, farmers have signed an additional agreement which obliges them not to violate the laws and ILO Conventions on child and forced labor. For this preventive mechanism to work effectively, the ILO believes it is necessary to provide training for farmers on most of these ILO Conventions. The ILO fails to understand that training farmers will have no impact unless the economic freedom of farmers is addressed. Shifting the responsibility for compliance with ILO Conventions on to farmers is naive, silly and downright immoral. Farmers in Uzbekistan do not organize forced labor. They do not have the leverage to organize it and have no way of forcing the rectors of universities or directors of schools and hospitals to send their employees to pick cotton. They themselves are victims of the system, an uncomfortable truth the ILO refuses to recognize.


Umida Niyazova,

Uzbek- German Forum for Human Rights

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