(Adds fresh comment from U.N. International Labour Organization)
By Kieran Guilbert
LONDON, Nov 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Rights groups on Friday disputed findings by the United Nations showing Uzbekistan has nearly eliminated forced labour from its cotton industry, saying that exploitation is still "systematic".
The annual cotton harvest in Uzbekistan is the world's largest recruitment operation, with about 2.6 million people temporarily picking cotton every year, according to the U.N. International Labour Organization (ILO).
Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov said last year that the Central Asian nation would no longer have thousands of students, teachers and healthcare workers picking the harvest - halting a practice widely condemned as forced labour.
On Thursday the ILO said 93 percent of people involved in the country's 2018 cotton harvest had worked voluntarily, and the systematic recruitment of students, teachers, doctors and nurses had ended.
Yet the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights said its own research since September found that public sector workers were still being forced to pick cotton by the state in Uzbekistan - one of the world's leading cotton exporters.
"Our evidence shows forced labour this year was still systematic and massive," Umida Niyazova, director at the forum, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
The rights group monitored this year's cotton harvest in seven regions and interviewed at least 300 people who were forced to work or pay for workers to take their place, she said.
Neither the Uzbek labour ministry nor the embassy in London could be reached for comment.
The ILO said on Thursday in a statement that Uzbekistan had "demonstrated that it deserves full support from the international community" for its efforts to stop forced labour.
"ILO monitors have observed that ... measures are working and people on the ground can feel a real difference," it said, outlining that ILO experts had carried out 11,000 independent interviews with people involved in the harvest.
"The ILO stands by its vigorous and extensive methodology," spokesman Hans von Rohland told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Friday.
"The ILO is committed to ensuring transparent and open dialogue with civil society on matters related to eradicating forced labour in the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan."
Despite ending the use of child labour in 2015 under international pressure including boycott campaigns, activists say hundreds of thousands of people in Uzbekistan are still regularly forced to pick cotton for weeks in poor conditions.
"If 93 percent of cotton pickers are working voluntarily, that would still leave about 180,000 who are not," said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW).
"This shows there is still a serious and significant problem," Swerdlow added. "There has been major progress recently but not a total victory. That will take several years."
And despite its promises, the Uzbek government has not yet given the local administration an alternative to recruiting huge workforces to pick the large quotas of cotton it demands, said Jakub Sobik of Britain-based charity Anti-Slavery International.
"This in turn may lead to the local officials falling into old habits and practices," he added. "Despite some positive changes, it is too early to announce the end of forced labour."
(Reporting by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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