New Uzbek leader can end slavery in the cotton industry

Tuesday, 27 September 2016 10:27 GMT

Uzbek farmers work at a cotton field in this 20015 file photo. REUTERS/Maria Golovnina

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Uzbekistan's new leader has the power to end forced labour in the cotton industry but the international community has the duty to ask him to use it.

This piece was written Klara Skrivankova, UK and Europe Programme Manager at Anti-Slavery International, and Umida Niyazova, Director of The Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights

The appointment of the Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev as the interim president of Uzbekistan after the death of Islam Karimov did not come as a surprise, even though under the Uzbek constitution the chair of Senate should fulfil the function. For years Mr Mirziyaev has been one of the most powerful men of Uzbekistan’s oppressive regime and is also tipped to be the favourite in the presidential election in December 2016.

One fact indicative of what we might expect from Mirziyaev’s leadership has so far been overlooked by most commentators – the role that he has played over decades in orchestrating the system of forced labour in the cotton industry.

At the centre of forced labour system

Uzbekistan is one of the few countries in the world where modern slavery is perpetrated by the state on its own citizens. Every year over a million of Uzbek citizens, including teachers, medical personnel and students are forcibly mobilised and required to pick cotton during the harvest.

The mobilisation of citizens is managed by the regional governors (hokims) who are each year prescribed cotton production quota by the central government. Not meeting the quota results in punishment. The whole system of cotton production in Uzbekistan is based on coercion, punishment and intimidation, reflecting the nature of the regime. Only few Uzbeks dare to challenge the system known to use torture, shoot at peaceful protesters and crack down on any dissent.

Mirziyaev  has been at the centre of the system. During his thirteen year tenure as the country’s Prime Minister (2003-2016) he was directly responsible for Uzbekistan’s agriculture. Cotton is Uzbekistan’s most important and profitable export commodity, Uzbekistan is the fifth largest cotton producer in the world. The annual profits from cotton sales are estimated at $1.25 billion and are used chiefly for personal enrichment of the upper echelons of the government and to fund the oppressive system.

While the system of production based on forced labour originates in Soviet times, during the Karimov era it has been not only maintained but further perfected to fit the demands of 21st century. Mirziyaev has been its engineer.

Every autumn, when cotton harvest began, Mirziyaev personally supervised the entire course of the cotton harvest, and at his command the hokims (the regional governors) forcibly mobilised employees of various public organisations to harvest cotton. He not only set the annual cotton production quota, but crucially enforced compliance with the quota.

Even in his previous roles as the governor of key cotton producing regions in Uzbekistan – Samarkand and Jizzak – he was known to show a firm hand to farmers who failed to fulfil the states requirements.

Change, what change?

In the past three years the international community praised Uzbekistan for progress in ending the use of forced child labour in the cotton fields, at least on a systematic scale.  In 2014 the Uzbek government started working with the International Labour Organization (ILO) to eliminate child labour and improve work conditions in agriculture, including cotton.

These developments were a culmination of several years of pressing for reforms by NGOs, mainly organised in the Cotton Campaign coalition to both Anti-Slavery International and Uzbek German Forum for Human Rights both belong, but also by trade unions and business.

However, rather than being dismantled, the forced labour system merely changed, as children in the fields have been replaced by masses of adult forced labour. This has led to the US Department of State downgrading Uzbekistan in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report this year.

Reports from the first harvest weeks already confirm that once again citizens are being forcibly mobilised to pick cotton and the early indications are that we are unlikely to see a reduction in forced labour this year.

The catalogue of human rights violations in Uzbekistan is long and forced labour is not always at the forefront of people’s minds. However, it should, as Uzbek cotton is traded at global markets and finds its way into clothes and other cotton products that we use every day.

As the pressure on global brands to clean up their supply chains grows, more and more businesses commit not to knowingly source cotton from Uzbekistan. But from not knowingly using Uzbek cotton to ensuring it’s eliminated from one’s supply chain is a long road, and much remains to be done.

Unlike in other parts of the world, the change in Uzbekistan can occur almost instantly – just as child labour was almost eradicated a few years ago, the government can unilaterally decide to end forced labour of adults.

However, past experience shows that this type of change is unlikely to occur without outside pressure. That is why governments, the European Union, international organisations and importantly business need to once again step up the pressure and remind Uzbek leaders that it is not acceptable to use forced labour to produce cotton that we all use.