Uzbeks report cotton harvest forced labour

Uzbek farming family picking cotton, 2005 Image copyright DENIS SINYAKOV/AFP/Getty Images
Image caption Cotton is a labour-intensive crop

Uzbekistan's annual cotton harvest is getting under way, and once again rights activists are reporting cases of forced labour.

Staff at state-owned companies are being driven out to the countryside to pick cotton despite a pledge by the government to end such abuses, the Moscow-based Ferghana.ru news site reports.

An international outcry against forced labour, especially involving children, has prompted several major clothing companies to boycott Uzbek cotton over the years, and the bad publicity gradually convinced the government to act.

Earlier this month it set up a well-staffed agency to monitor work in the fields, and the pro-government Podrobno news site publicised telephone and Telegram messaging service hotlines for the public to report abuses.

President Shavkat Mirziyoyev told regional governors in August that "no schools, institutes or state-funded organisations will be involved in this year's cotton harvest - remember this", and the labour ministry reminded them again this month that they must not break the law in an effort to meet harvest targets.

The official Trade Union Federation is also running a parallel system of checks.

'Threatened with dismissal'

But members of the public are already complaining of having to sign statements that they were "volunteering to join the harvest campaign to help out the farmers" - a line commonly used during the Soviet period and the subsequent authoritarian rule of President Islam Karimov, who died in office in 2016.

Staff at the Farg'onaazot chemical plant told Radio Liberty's Uzbek Service that they were "threatened with dismissal if they didn't sign the statements", and the tax police had to issue a denial of reports that their officer cadets had been ordered to the fields of Syrdarya Region.

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Staff at the Andijan electricity board passed a screen grab to Radio Liberty of a management instruction to "come and sign up for voluntary work on the harvest".

"The bosses eat well, while we sit in a cowshed in Jizzakh eating noodles and broth. When will it all end? Our patience is running thin," one electricity worker told Radio Liberty.

The Uzbek government has an ambitious plan to switch its large state-run agricultural sector, including the cotton business, to a market basis over the next decade, but depressed rural wages and the continuation of forced labour provide few incentives to increase productivity.

Image copyright Shuhrataxmedov/Wikimedia Commons
Image caption Cotton-pickers usually work to a daily quota

Reporting by Martin Morgan

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