Uzbekistans total cotton harvest this year rose to 3.4m tonnes

Uzbekistan's total cotton harvest this year rose to 3.4m tonnes

The Uzbekistan government has continued to use "systematic, mass forced labour" in this year's cotton harvest, campaigners say, claiming more adults had to work against their will to make up for a reduction in the number of children in the fields.

The 2014 harvest, which has now concluded, not only saw millions of people across the country coerced to pick cotton, the Cotton Campaign claims, but also resulted in "institutionalised harassment, extortion, and needless deaths."

A preliminary report just released by one of its members, the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, presents evidence gathered by its network of monitors in Uzbekistan.

It alleges millions of Uzbek citizens were required to work in the cotton fields on instruction from the very top of Uzbekistan's government. Continuing a trend started in 2012, the government reduced the number of children used to pick cotton - but instead forced more adults to make up the difference.

"Reducing the number of children in the fields by forcing even more adults to work against their will is not sufficient," said Umida Niyazova, director of the Uzbek-German Forum. "The government needs to dismantle the forced labour system."

Furthermore, the government has not entirely eliminated child labour, the report suggests, saying 13-15-year old children in the Kashkadarya, Jizzakh and Samarkand regions were mobilised towards the end the harvest by local officials under pressure to deliver their quota.

The report also notes that 17 people died in the 2014 harvest, six more than last year. In one case, a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old died in a house fire after being left alone while their mother went to pick cotton.

Among other findings, people who could not or did not want to harvest cotton had to pay for replacement workers and the government extorted mandatory payments from business to support the harvest. Parents in some schools and kindergartens were explicitly forced to pick cotton in place of their children.

The government also imposed harvest quotas on public institutions such as schools and hospitals, and required them to send up to send 30-60% of staff to the fields, a major increase over last year, seriously undermining the provision of key public services, such as health care and education.

With technical assistance from the International Labour Organization (ILO) under the Decent Work Country Programme, the government of Uzbekistan self-monitored the use of children in the harvest. However, several of its conclusions were contradicted by documentary evidence and eyewitness accounts collected by the Uzbek German Forum's monitors.

The Programme also calls for the ILO to survey recruitment practices as a first step to eradicating forced labour. Yet sixth months into the two-year programme the Uzbek government has not permitted the ILO to proceed with the survey and has again harassed and detained independent civil society activists and media attempting to report on the harvest, the Cotton Campaign says.

Uzbekistan is the fifth largest cotton producer in the world, producing raw cotton mainly for exports. The government controls every aspect of production and all cotton must be sold to the government at government-established prices. The total harvest of cotton in Uzbekistan this year reached 3.4m tonnes, up from last year's 3.35m tonnes.

Because of its practices, a number of leading fashion brands and retailers have pledged not to purchase or use Uzbek cotton, with research earlier this year naming Adidas, Marks & Spencer, Patagonia and PVH among the companies taking the most comprehensive steps to stop cotton from Uzbekistan from entering their supply chains.

That said, most companies are taking little to no action to be absolutely certain the cotton in their products is not originating in Uzbekistan.

The Cotton Campaign wants the US and European Union to urge the Uzbekistan government to end its forced labour system, starting by granting the ILO unfettered access to survey forced labour and initiating agriculture sector reforms.

Just last month the US said the Uzbekistan government continues to be "complicit" in the use of forced child labour during the cotton harvest and the country has made "no advancement" in efforts to eliminate the practice.

The report, '2013 Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor', compiled by Bureau of International Labor Affairs on behalf of the US Department of Labor, outlines the prevalence of child labour around the world, and the efforts being made to eliminate it.

Click on the following link for an earlier report on this year's cotton harvest: Uzbekistan cotton yields rise despite labour concerns