The International Labour Organization (ILO) claims the systematic and systemic use of child labour and forced labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry has come to an end.

In its most recent report, ‘Third party monitoring of child labour and forced labour during the 2019 cotton harvest in Uzbekistan,’ compiled for the World Bank, the ILO says more than 94% of workers in the 2019 cotton harvest worked freely and the systematic recruitment of students, teachers, doctors and nurses has completely stopped.

It adds: “Systematic child labour has been eradicated and child labour is no longer a major concern.”

Even so, 102,000 pickers were recorded as being in forced labour during the harvest in 2019 – although this number was 40% lower than in 2018.  And the involuntary recruitment of staff from state institutions, agencies and enterprises still occurs at the local level.

The ILO began monitoring the Uzbek cotton harvest for child labour in 2013. In 2015, as part of an agreement with the World Bank, this work was extended to cover both forced labour and child labour.

In 2019, for the first time the ILO Third-Party Monitoring (TPM) was carried out by independent Uzbek civil society activists using ILO methodology and training. The activists reported that they completed their monitoring without interference. The resulting report is based on more than 7,000 unaccompanied and unannounced interviews with a representative sample of the country’s 1.75m cotton pickers.

“This year we observed several new positive developments,” says Elena Urlaeva, a human rights activist and monitor. “The Ministry of Employment and Labour Relations encouraged civil society to be critical. We were provided with official ID badges that we could show to local officials in case we were being asked questions. This was very helpful. Another positive thing was that our human rights activist group increased. Several young people joined us this year and it is encouraging.”

“Forced labour is completely unacceptable and has no place in modern Uzbekistan,” adds Tanzila Narbaeva, chairwoman of the Uzbek Senate. “We still have work to do but we are encouraged that the reforms are showing such positive results. 2020 is an important year for us as we continue to modernise our agricultural systems and strengthen our labour market governance. We have also recently introduced criminalisation of forced labour, which we hope will serve as an effective deterrent. We look forward to continue our cooperation with the ILO, the World Bank and civil society to further sustain progress in this area.”

Improvements have also stemmed from greater efforts from government law enforcement in 2019. The number of labour inspectors doubled from 200 to 400, and 1,282 forced labour cases were investigated.  In January 2020, the Uzbek President, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, signed new legislation criminalising forced labour.

“These reforms should be supported by the international community,” says Heinz Koller, ILO assistant director-general and regional director for Europe and Central Asia. “Responsible international investment can encourage the move away from the old, centrally planned, economic system and compliance with international labour standards. I also commend the government and social partners for the implementation of the decent work country programme. The ILO will continue providing technical assistance in 2020 and beyond.”

The full report can be accessed here