The ILO monitors the Uzbekistan cotton harvest for the use of state-sponsored and state-orchestrated forced labour

The ILO monitors the Uzbekistan cotton harvest for the use of state-sponsored and state-orchestrated forced labour

As the annual cotton harvest gets underway in Uzbekistan, the group representing US apparel and footwear retailers and importers has expressed its concerns over the International Labour Organization's (ILO) monitoring mission – and the introduction of a new category, "reluctant workers," to characterise labour that does not appear to be voluntary.

The ILO monitors the cotton harvest for the use of state-sponsored and state-orchestrated forced labour at the request of the World Bank, whose private sector lending arm the International Finance Corporation (IFC) puts funding into projects that benefit the Uzbek cotton sector.

Representing more than 1,000 brands, the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA) says many of its members have pledged to avoid the use of Uzbek cotton until the government ends the practice of state-sponsored forced labour in the harvest.

And it says the ILO's reporting on behalf of the World Bank "undermines the ILO's independence and credibility and [its] authority in fighting forced labour around the world."

Among the points raised in a letter sent this week to ILO director-general Guy Ryder, the AAFA notes ILO monitors are accompanied by an official from the Federation of Trade Unions of Uzbekistan (FTUU), an organisation controlled by the Uzbek government "and known to be deeply involved in the forced mobilisation of Uzbek citizens during the annual cotton harvest."

This, it says, "calls into question the independence of the ILO's third-party monitoring program."

It also highlights that "critical issues were not addressed" in the most recent ILO monitoring report, issued January 2017, which fails to reference:

  • A protocol issued by the Uzbek Cabinet that ordered the FTUU to direct the deployment of public workers to pick cotton;
  • The Uzbek government's persecution of independent monitors who were attempting to monitor the cotton harvest; and
  • Evidence of forced labour gathered during the cotton harvest by independent monitors like the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights.

But most troubling of all, it writes, is the introduction of a new category, "reluctant workers," to characterise labour that does not appear to be voluntary. These are defined as workers who go to harvest cotton because of "social pressure" from their peers, as opposed to coercion – and the term has not previously been used by the ILO.

"The introduction of such a tenuous term as "reluctant workers" into the global lexicon on forced labour by the ILO – the organisation responsible for setting the standard of decent work worldwide – is very worrisome," the AAFA says.

It adds: "The term, as defined in these reports, could provide a justification for virtually any type of forced labour, and could seriously undermine the work done by your organisation to eradicate forced labor around the world."

The AAFA urges the ILO "to consider these serious concerns before continuing this mission."

Earlier this year a global coalition of labour, human rights, investor and business organisations also slammed the ILO report for claiming the Uzbek government is making progress in reforms to address risks of child and forced labour in its cotton industry.

Human rights groups question Uzbekistan forced labour progress