The systematic and systemic use of child labor and forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry has come to an end, although some local vestiges still remain, according to a new International Labor Organization (ILO) report.
The report, compiled for the World Bank, shows that one in eight people of working age in Uzbekistan participated in the cotton harvest. This makes it the world’s largest recruitment effort. Sixty-five percent of pickers were women, and the vast majority were from rural areas.
“When I was a child, we unfortunately missed a lot of school classes because of the cotton harvest,” said Dilshoda Shodmonova from Chircik near Tashkent. “Today, thanks to the reforms, my own daughter can go to school uninterrupted and get her education. This encourages me to continue my work as a labor rights activist.”
The country is making significant progress on fundamental labor rights in the cotton fields. More than 96 per cent of workers in the 2020 cotton harvest worked freely and the systematic recruitment of students, teachers, doctors and nurses has completely stopped.
In 2020, the share of cotton pickers that experienced coercion was 33 percent lower than in 2019. However, there were still cases at the local level of people being threatened with loss of privileges or rights if they declined an invitation to pick cotton.
The ILO monitoring had a particular focus on the pandemic. Many Uzbek migrant workers returned to Uzbekistan as a result of the pandemic which resulted in more people being available for the cotton harvest.
Pickers demonstrated a high level of awareness about coronavirus, but many shared their concerns about the disease. One third of cotton pickers said that face masks and hand washing facilities were available. Two thirds of pickers said that they could always maintain social distancing during lunchtime or breaks.
The main motivation for Uzbeks to pick cotton was the opportunity to earn money. On average, each picker participated in the harvest for twenty-one days and earned 1.54 million soums (equivalent to US$150). This is higher than the average salary of a teacher in Uzbekistan.
The cotton harvest accounted for a crucial part of most pickers’ livelihood. Sixty percent of pickers said that the 2020 cotton harvest was their only source of cash income this year.
The Uzbek government has significantly increased wages since 2017 and introduced a differentiated pay scale so that pickers are paid more per kilogram of cotton towards the end of the harvest, when conditions are less favorable and there is less cotton to pick. This has led to a significant drop in the prevalence of forced labor.
“Forced labor is not only socially and morally wrong, but is a serious violation of human rights and a criminal offence in Uzbekistan,” said Tanzila Narbaeva, Chairperson of the Uzbek Senate and the National Commission on Forced Labor and Human Trafficking.
“In order to change behavior, you need to change the way people think. We make it happen by working together as legislators, government officials, employers, trade unions, and civil society activists.”
The government’s strategy is to move Uzbekistan up the value chain and position the country as an exporter of textiles and garments instead of raw cotton. This has the potential to create millions of higher paid jobs and generate significant export earnings.