The use of forced labour remains endemic in Uzbekistans cotton harvest

The use of forced labour remains endemic in Uzbekistan's cotton harvest

A decision by the US to upgrade Uzbekistan in its annual report on human trafficking has been slammed by human rights groups.

The 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report released yesterday (27 July) upgraded Uzbekistan to Tier 2 Watch List from the lowest Tier 3 ranking, saying that while the country’s government does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, "it is making significant efforts to do so."

The report cites steps including a government decree prohibiting forced child labour in the 2014 cotton harvest, and new fines against college directors and farms for using child labour to pick cotton. It also signed a Decent Work Country Programme agreement with the International Labour Organization (ILO), and agreed to allow the ILO to monitor the 2015-2017 cotton harvests for child and forced labour.

That said, "despite these efforts, serious concerns persist, as government-compelled forced labour of adults remained endemic in the 2014 cotton harvest," the report notes.

It also said Uzbek officials resorted to child labour "under pressure to fulfill government-decreed cotton quotas," and forced labour is unlike human trafficking in other countries in that it is "government-compelled."

But the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of human rights, labour, investor and business organisations, describes the US upgrade as "unwarranted" - and one that decreases pressure on the authorities in Tashkent to end forced labour.

"The failure to classify Uzbekistan properly is wholly inconsistent with the well-documented evidence of its systematic human rights abuse," said Nadejda Ataeva, president at the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia. "The US effectively sent a message to Uzbek authorities that forced labour of millions of its citizens is cost-free."

The group is now calling on the US to redouble its efforts to persuade the authorities in Tashkent to eliminate forced labour from the cotton sector.

In particular, it wants the US to insist that the Uzbek authorities begin by instructing officials at all levels of government to refrain from using coercion to mobilise citizens to work in the cotton fields and prosecuting all officials who do; committing to an action plan to eradicate forced labour with the ILO; and permitting citizens and journalists, domestic and foreign, to report human rights violations in the cotton sector without fear of retaliation.

"The practice of forced labor in Uzbekistan has persisted for far too long and should be urgently ended," added Umida Niyazova, director at the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights. "This year’s report missed a crucial opportunity to end this abominable practice sooner."

Research last year named Adidas, Marks & Spencer, Patagonia and PVH among the companies taking the most comprehensive steps to stop cotton from Uzbekistan picked with forced labour from entering their supply chains.

A survey of 49 apparel and home goods firms released by the Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN) looked at what the companies are doing to identify risks, establish policies, implement procedures, and disclose practices to eliminate and prevent incidents of forced labour in cotton harvesting.

However, although almost 80% of the companies surveyed have some sort of policy against Uzbek cotton, most companies are taking little to no action to be absolutely certain the cotton in their products is not originating in Uzbekistan.