COTTON IN UZBEKISTAN: AGRICULTURE, BREZHNEV-ERA CORRUPTION AND FORCED LABOR

COTTON IN UZBEKISTAN

Uzbekistan is the world's sixth largest cotton producer and the second largest exporter of cotton after the United States. It was once the world’s forth largest producer and produced considerably more cotton in the Soviet era than it does now as land that once produced cotton is now used to raise other crops. At one time three quarters of all the cotton produced in Central Asia came from Uzbekistan. During the Soviet era cotton was known as "white gold" and 90 percent of the Soviet Union's supply came from Uzbekistan.

About 1.8 million tons of cotton is produced a year in Uzbekistan far less than what was produced in the Soviet era and even the 1990s when the harvest was around 3.5 million tons. In the 1990s, cotton exports earned Uzbekistan about $1 billion a year, about a third of its export revenues (it used to make 80 percent).The industry is monopolized by the state which takes most profits for itself. Farmers are paid relatively low prices set by the state. Even after the Uzbekistan government bowed to IMF pressures to pay farmers more, farmers were still only getting 40 percent of the international price.

Top Producing Countries: (Production, $1000; Production, metric tons in 2008: 1) China, 11133600, 7500000; 2) India, 5621725, 3787000; 3) United States of America, 4141996, 2790200; 4) Pakistan, 2983804, 2010000; 5) Brazil, 1953551, 1315984; 6) Uzbekistan, 1820269, 1226200; 7) Turkey, 999055, 673000; 8) Greece, 430499, 290000; 9) Turkmenistan, 415654, 280000; 10) Syrian Arab Republic, 362213, 244000; 11) Burkina Faso, 335492, 226000; 12) Nigeria, 247908, 167000; 13) Egypt, 237516, 160000; 14) Argentina, 201889, 136000; 15) Australia, 197138, 132800; 16) Benin, 186005, 125300; 17) Mexico, 185560, 125000; 18) Tajikistan, 172941, 116500; 19) Mozambique, 166606, 112232; 20) Kazakhstan, 155870, 105000. [Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, FAO]

See Separate Article on Agriculture

History of Cotton Agriculture in Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan's entire agricultural infrastructure — irrigation systems, configuration of fields, allocation and type of farm machinery, and other characteristics — has been geared toward cotton production since the early Soviet era. In the mid-1990s, the economy still was based primarily on agriculture, following substantial increases in irrigation-dependent output in the 1970s and 1980s, and cotton was the most valuable crop. But recent years cotton production has declined. In 2005 accounted for approximately 20 percent of the country's exports after reaching 39 percent in the late 1990s.

In the 1920s, the Soviet government decreed it needed to be independent of cotton imports. Uzbekistan and Central Asia were selected the places to achieve this goal even though the areas where it was grown have very little rain and cotton requires large amounts fo water. Much of arable land in Uzbekistan was earmarked for cotton production and Uzbeks were forced to dig irrigation canals and move to collectives and grow the cotton crop for Russian mills.

Vast amounts of land were devoted to growing cotton. Uzbekistan was the chief cotton-growing region of the Soviet Union, accounting for 61 percent of total Soviet production.

In the mid-1990s, Uzbekistan ranked as the fourth largest producer of cotton in the world and the world's third largest cotton exporter. In 1991 Uzbekistan's cotton yield was more than 4.6 million tons, of which more than 80 percent was classified in the top two quality grades. In 1987 roughly 40 percent of the workforce and more than half of all irrigated land in Uzbekistan--more than 2 million hectares--were devoted to cotton. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Cotton Production in Uzbekistan

Cotton remains an important crop in Uzbekistan and the quality of Uzbek cotton is regarded as very good. However revenues are dependant on world prices, which sometimes drop very low, and causes great environmental damage. An effort has been made to market Uzbek cotton as a high quality product and produce finished goods in Uzbekistan such as cloth and clothes.

A lack of crop rotation in the production of cotton depletes nitrogen from the soil and causes erosion and top soil to be blown away by winds. Many people say the land could be put to better use producing food. In the 1990s, about one1 million acres of cotton land was earmarked to use for grain production.

During the harvesting season in September and October you can see small hills of cotton piled up the near the roads and drive past mile after mile of workers picking cotton in the fields. It has been estimated that if farmers were paid better prices and foreign investment was allowed, yields could be doubled.

About one quarter of the population make a living from growing or processing cotton. Women and children do much of the cotton harvesting which is still mainly done by hand. Cotton is still harvested on collective farms by hand by forced student labor.

Cotton is grown with natural water in the Fergana Valley and irrigation water in the semideserts of the west. Cotton production is increasing in the Fergana Valley, where farmers of getting yields of five tons per hectare, but declining in the plains and semi-deserts in the west.

See Separate Articles on the Aral Sea.

Billions Lost in Uzbekistan Cotton Scam in the 1970s and 80s

In the 1980s, the regional Soviet leader in the Uzbek Republic pulled off one of the biggest scams of the 20th century by falsifying data on cotton production and earning more than $2 billion for himself and his coconspirators before the fraud was revealed when satellite pictures showed that areas that were supposed to be planted with cotton actually were not. The scam involved the son-in-law of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, who ruled the Soviet Union from 1964 until his death in 1982, and probably Brezhnev himself.

Corrupt officials over-reported cotton production, sold cotton on the black market and swindled the government out of billions of rubles. After spy satellites discovered that many cotton fields were empty and the scheme came unraveled, some 2,600 officials were arrested and 50,000 were fired. The scandal uncovered a state farm boss who kept concubines, used slave labor and cruelly tortured anyone who opposed him. According to a frequently told joke at the time, a farmer is asked by a Communist official how much cotton there is, The official says, "Enough to pile up to Allah's feet." The Communist says, "You idiot, you now know there is no god." The farmer said, "That's okay because their no cotton either."

Bill Keller wrote in the New York Times, “The Uzbek affair has been described as the Soviet Union's Watergate, a scandal that reached into the top levels of power and exposed a pervasive moral lassitude at the heart of the political system. It revolved around the industry that dominates life in Uzbekistan: growing cotton. National investigators said cotton magnates and politicians had stolen billions of rubles over the years through padding cotton harvest figures. The corruption included protection rackets, bribery and sale of government offices. The press has carried extensive, sometimes lurid accounts of the flamboyant corruption that flourished...including local officials who lived like feudal lords, bribing top officials with diamonds and cognac, and sending hired killers after investigators.” [Source: Bill Keller, New York Times, December 31, 1988 +/+]

Between 1976 and 1983, Soviet leaders defrauded the Soviet central bank by falsely inflating Uzbek cotton harvest yields. The "cotton scandal" was at iss peak during the tenure of Sharof Rashidov and resulted in discrediting the political elite of Uzbekistan. Rashidov (1917 – 1983) was a Communist Party leader in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic and a Communist Party Central Committee Politburo candidate member between 1961 and 1983. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Under Rashidov, Uzbek government responded to from Moscow to grow increasing quantities of cotton by reporting miraculous growth in land irrigated and harvested, and record improvements in production and efficiency in falsified records. The Uzbek leadership used these exaggerated figures to transfer substantial amounts of wealth from central Soviet funds into Uzbekistan. When the scam was discovered, Rashidov committed suicide. +

After Uzbekistan's independence, Rashidov re-emerged as a national hero. He is seen in Uzbekistan as having been a strong leader who found a way to cleverly defy Moscow and "beat the system” while managing to create a situation where Uzbekistan became quite autonomous of central control. +

Brezhnev Son-Law Involved in Uzbekistan Cotton Scam

Yuri Churbanov, the son-in-law of Leonid Brezhnev, was implicated in the Uzbekistan cotton scandal. Associated Press reported: “A five-year investigation has uncovered bribery and corruption that cost the Uzbekistan Soviet Republic at least $6.5 billion and involved high-ranking officials including the son-in-law of the late Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev, Pravda said. The official Communist Party newspaper said the corruption was institutionalized, and that involved officials and millionaire entrepreneurs in the Central Asian republic hired bodyguards and bought police protection... The story appeared to convey the message that Mikhail S. Gorbachev's leadership will not tolerate the corruption, stagnation and bureaucracy of Brezhnev's era. [Source: Associated Press, January 24, 1988 <^>]

“Pravda said the corruption in Uzbekistan involved the Soviet Union's first deputy interior minister, a post held from 1980-1985 by Yuri M. Churbanov, Brezhnev's son-in-law. Churbanov was married to Brezhnev's daughter, Galina. Pravda did not identify Churbanov by name, but the reference was clear because there had been no other first deputy interior minister during the period. Soviet officials announced” earlier “that Churbanov had been arrested and accused of corruption and accepting bribes, but they did not tie him to the investigation in Uzbekistan. <^>

The paper said officials arrested included the premier and a deputy president of Uzbekistan, and top Communist party officials at the republic and local levels. At least $6.5 billion of state money disappeared from the republic's cotton industry, but authorities have found only a small percentage of it, the report said. "Not one question was decided without bribes. He who gave bribes got everything. The question stood this way: either leave your post or live according to the law of criminals," investigators were quoted as saying. The investigation swept up many minor officials who had little option but to participate in the corruption, Pravda said. In addition, blackmail and extortion groups in Uzbekistan pressured those who made illegal millions, and the underground millionaires responded by hiring gunmen for personal bodyguards, the newspaper said. <^>

“The Pravda article was printed several days after the weekly Literary Gazette revealed that Akhmadzhan Adylov, the head of an agricultural complex in Uzbekistan, had built a fiefdom with a private court system and an underground jail that was built by up to 1,000 workers. The two articles, striking for their detail even in the atmosphere of openness fostered by Gorbachev, apparently were a signal that those found guilty of corruption would be treated harshly. <^>

“At least two officials already have been sentenced to death. Pravda revealed that investigators sent from Moscow to Uzbekistan arrested Abduvakhid Karimov, the head of the Bukhara Communist Party, after an all-night party at his country house.Soviet media reported that Karimov had been sentenced to be shot for corruption. In August, 1986, Vakhbozhan Usmanov, the former cotton minister of the republic, also was sentenced to death.” <^> Brezhnev Son-in-Law Gets 12-Year Term

In December 1988, Leonid Brezhnev’s son-in-law was sentenced to 12 years in a labor camp for accepting bribes, Bill Keller wrote in the New York Times, “Yuri M. Churbanov, who was the second-ranking Soviet police official from 1980 to 1984, was sentenced for taking bribes equivalent to more than $150,000 to protect widespread fraud in the Central Asian cotton industry. Six co-defendants, former high-ranking police officials from the Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan, were given sentences ranging from 8 to 10 years. The property of all those convicted will be confiscated as part of the sentence. [Source: Bill Keller, New York Times, December 31, 1988 +/+]

“Under Soviet law, Mr. Churbanov could have been sentenced to death because of the magnitude of the theft, but the prosecution had indicated that it would not seek the maximum penalty because he had cooperated with investigators. Mr. Churbanov, who is 52 years old, is the highest-ranking official charged in the cotton corruption scandal. But the press has reported that other powerful figures profited grandly from the network of patronage and payoffs, including Brezhnev himself, and Sharaf R. Rashidov, who led the Uzbek Communist Party for 25 years until his death in 1983. +/+

“Mr. Churbanov's lawyer, Andrei Makarov, asserted before the four-month trial that his defendant was being made a scapegoat for the discredited former party leader, and that the torrent of melodramatic press coverage surrounding the so-called Uzbek affair had made a fair trial impossible. The six co-defendants convicted of corruption with Mr. Churbanov were Pyotr Begelman, a former Uzbek deputy interior minister, and Nuin Nurov, a former regional police chief of Tashkent, each sentenced to 9 years; Azhamal Dzhamalov, Yakub Makhamadzhanov and Salim Sabirov, Uzbek regional police chiefs, each given 8 years, and Khushvakt Norbutayev, another regional chief, 10 years. +/+

“Mr. Churbanov, who was arrested in January 1987, has been portrayed as a man of little talent and vast ambition who married his way to power. He was a junior official in the Interior Ministry until he was assigned as a personal security guard to Galina L. Brezhnev, the daughter of Mr. Brezhnev. After he divorced his wife and married the party leader's daughter in 1971, Mr. Churbanov rose quickly through the ranks of the ministry and became a nonvoting member of the party's ruling Central Committee. +/+

“Mr. Churbanov was originally charged with taking bribes worth 650,000 rubles, the equivalent of about $1.1 million, from June 1976 to October 1982. But after a trial that heard nearly 200 witnesses, the military tribunal threw out some of the charges. Mr. Churbanov had pleaded guilty to abuse of his office, but said he was innocent of bribe-taking. He was also convicted of taking more than 10,000 rubles, or $16,500, of Interior Ministry funds to build a cellar in his summer home and of approving the gift of an antigue gold watch to his boss, Interior Minister Nikolai A. Shchelokov. +/+

“Mr. Shchelokov is said to have committed suicide during the investigation of the case. Two Uzbek officials who had been scheduled to stand trial with Mr. Churbanov committed suicide in prison. Several other Uzbek officials have been arrested in connection with the cotton scandal, and additional trials are expected.” +/+

Forced Labor and the Cotton Harvest in Uzbekistan

According to the U.S. Department of State: “Government-compelled forced labor occurred during the cotton harvest, when local authorities striving to meet nationally set production quotas applied varying amounts of pressure to heads of governmental organizations, private businesses, and educational institutions to mobilize third-course college and lyceum students (generally, but not always, over the age of 18), teachers, medical workers, government personnel, military personnel, and nonworking segments of the population to pick cotton in most parts of the country. Adults typically earned around 220 soum ($0.09) per 2.2 pounds of cotton picked. Adults were expected to pick 120 to 154 pounds per day. The resulting daily wage was 12,000 to 15,400 soum ($5.00 to $6.40) per day. Working conditions varied greatly by region. There continued to be scattered reports of inadequate food and lodging, and there were also reports of students without access to clean drinking water. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Uzbekistan ,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State \*\]

People who fail to “volunteer” risk being fired or arrested. One professor, who performed his national service picking cotton for more than 50 years told National Geographic: “No one is exempt. You can be 90 years old with one eye and one leg and you still must pick.” [Source: Mark Synnott, National Geographic, June 2015 \+/]

According to Human Rights Watch: “Following international pressure, the government reduced the numbers of young children sent to harvest cotton in 2014, as it had done in 2013, but increased the use of older children and adults. The forced labor of adults disrupts the delivery of essential services nationwide, as authorities mobilize public sector workers—including doctors, nurses, and teachers—to fill quotas. [Source: “World Report 2015: Uzbekistan” Human Rights Watch]

According to the U.S. Department of State: “Credible reports suggested that the forced mobilization of adult state workers during the cotton harvest increased over the previous year to compensate for the loss of underage workers. Authorities continued to expect many teachers and school administrators to participate in the harvest, either as supervisors or cotton pickers. The majority of schools, colleges, and lyceums remained open with a reduced faculty, but there were reports of colleges being closed or cancelling classes in certain regions due to staffing shortages. The loss of public-sector workers during the cotton harvest adversely affected communities, as medical procedures often were deferred and essential public services delayed.” \*\

“Some adults who refused to pick cotton, did not pay for a replacement worker, or who did not fulfill their daily quota may have been threatened with the loss of social benefits, termination of employment, and harassment. Private companies in some regions mobilized employees for the harvest under the implicit threat of increased government inspections and taxes. Some independent observers allege that some workers were injured or died, at least in part, due to harvest-related activities in 2014.” [Source: “2015 Trafficking in Persons Report: Uzbekistan”, Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, U.S. Department of State]

Combating Forced Labor in the Cotton Harvest in Uzbekistan

The Cotton Campaign is a coalition of organizations committed to ending forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry. Well-known Uzbek human rights activist Eleana Uraleva has been detained and abused by police after she was caught photographing people forced to work in cotton fields. [Source: Catherine Putz, The Diplomat, September 25, 2015]

According to the U.S. Department of State: “With government approval, in 2014, the ILO began a survey on recruitment practices and working conditions in agriculture, especially the cotton sector. The government agreed with the World Bank and ILO to allow ILO to monitor the 2015-2017 cotton harvests for child and forced labor in five World Bank-funded project areas, which comprise approximately 60 percent of Uzbekistan’s cotton-producing territory. One of the projects includes a cotton harvest mechanization component, which will serve as a preliminary model for the government’s plan to increasingly mechanize the harvest and reduce some of the future demand for manual labor. The government also continued to obtain cotton harvesting machines and planned the allocation of the machines to the regions that are most susceptible to labor violations.” [Source: “2015 Trafficking in Persons Report: Uzbekistan”, Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, U.S. Department of State ^^^]

“The government reported it identified 1,208 trafficking victims in 2014, the majority of whom were subjected to forced labor, compared with 1,392 in 2013. Of these victims, 143 were exploited within the country, while the remaining victims were Uzbekistani citizens subjected to human trafficking in other countries. NGOs and an international organization identified and assisted 847 trafficking victims in 2014, compared with 451 in 2013. NGOs stated the increase reflected improved collaboration with officials who more consistently referred victims to NGOs. ^^^

“Recommendations for Uzbekistan : Continue substantive ongoing actions to eliminate forced child labor during the annual cotton harvest; take substantive action to end the use of forced adult labor during the annual cotton harvest; grant independent civil society groups full, unfettered access to monitor the annual cotton harvest; investigate and, when sufficient evidence exists, prosecute officials complicit in human trafficking, respecting due process; remove language in contracts that requires college students and state employees to participate in the cotton harvest. ^^^

Uzbekistan should also improve procedures for identifying trafficking victims to ensure they are systematic and proactive, and efficiently refer victims to protection services; promote awareness of labor rights, including in regard to the cotton harvest, and develop a transparent process for registering and investigating violations of those rights; cease harassment of activists for documenting labor conditions; take additional steps to ensure victims are not penalized for acts committed as a result of being subjected to trafficking, including for illegal border crossing; continue to provide in-kind support to anti-trafficking NGOs to assist and shelter victims; and continue efforts to investigate and prosecute suspected trafficking offenders, respecting due process.” ^^^

Obstacles to Combating Forced Labor in the Cotton Harvest in Uzbekistan

According to the U.S. Department of State: “Despite these efforts, serious concerns persist, as government-compelled forced labor of adults remained endemic in the 2014 cotton harvest. There were also reports that local government officials, under pressure to fulfill government-decreed cotton quotas, mobilized children in some districts of certain regions, in contravention of the government decree. The government also allegedly attempted to conceal possible labor violations in cotton fields by threatening and detaining at least two activists who were attempting to document them. Regarding protection efforts, the government continued to fund a trafficking rehabilitation center for men, women, and children and Uzbekistan’s diplomatic missions abroad helped repatriate 368 victims. [Source: “2015 Trafficking in Persons Report: Uzbekistan”, Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, U.S. Department of State ^^^]

“Official complicity in human trafficking in the cotton harvest remained prevalent. Some adults who refused to pick cotton, pay for a replacement worker, or who did not fulfill their daily quotas may have been threatened with the loss of critical social benefits, termination of employment, and harassment. According to reports, some regional and local authorities applied varying amounts of pressure on government institutions, universities, and businesses to organize students, teachers, medical workers, government and military personnel, private sector employees, and local residents to pick cotton during the 2014 harvest. ^^^

“State employees, including teachers and hospital workers, are bound by a clause in their collective bargaining agreement to be transferred elsewhere for up to 60 days each year and university students sign contracts requiring their participation in the harvest as a condition of school enrollment. These contracts were used to legitimize the mobilization of public sector workers and university students for the cotton harvest. In some districts and cities, local officials pressured private companies to mobilize some of their employees for the harvest with an implicit threat of increased government inspections and taxes. Police threatened and detained at least two activists attempting to document labor violations in the cotton fields. ^^^

“In 2014, in observance of the application of the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention which Uzbekistan ratified in 1997, ILO began a survey, with government approval, on recruitment practices and working conditions in agriculture, especially the cotton sector. As the government did not openly acknowledge domestic forced labor of adults in the cotton sector, the identification of and assistance to such victims was stymied.” ^^^

Combating Child Labor in the Cotton Harvest in Uzbekistan

According to Human Rights Watch: In February 2014 “the International Labour Organization (ILO) reported the findings of its mission to monitor child labor during the 2013 cotton harvest. While finding that the practice was not “systematic,” the report noted the use of child labor, and emphasized concerns about the use of forced labor, which it recommended the government take steps to eliminate. Uzbek civil society reported that the ILO mission did not undertake a comprehensive assessment of the harvest since it did not include forced adult labor or ensure Uzbek civil society’s participation, and was not independent because monitoring teams included Uzbek government representatives. [Source: “World Report 2015: Uzbekistan” Human Rights Watch]

According to the U.S. Department of State: In 2014, “for the third consecutive year, the government effectively forbade the mobilization of children under 15. For the first time, the government also attempted to enforce a prohibition on the mobilization of children under 18, although in the last weeks of the cotton harvest some local authorities mobilized 16- and 17-year-old students. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Uzbekistan ,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State \*\]

According to the U.S. Department of State: In 2014, “as in 2013 the Office of the Prime Minister took the lead role in coordinating enforcement of its decree to keep children out of cotton fields. Local officials often participated by forming monitoring groups to ensure that parents and schools did not allow their children to pick cotton. It was unclear whether the Ministry of the Interior conducted inspections in the agricultural sector. There were no known prosecutions for child labor during the year. As noted above, forced child labor was employed during the cotton harvest, although at a diminished level from previous years. [Source: “2015 Trafficking in Persons Report: Uzbekistan”, Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, U.S. Department of State ^^^]

“The government issued and publicized a decree prohibiting the forced labor of children under age 18 in the 2014 cotton harvest and fined college directors and farms for using child labor to pick cotton. In 2014, the government signed a Decent Work Country Programme agreement with ILO to develop national policies to support the government in its observance of ILO Conventions 182 (Worst Forms of Child Labour) and 105 (Abolition of Forced Labour). One component of the agreement authorizes ILO to perform a survey on recruitment practices and working conditions in agriculture, especially the cotton sector. The government also agreed with the World Bank and ILO to allow ILO to monitor the 2015-2017 cotton harvests for child and forced labor in five World Bank-funded project areas, which comprise approximately 60 percent of Uzbekistan’s cotton producing territory. ^^^

“The Coordination Council on Issues of Child Labor conducted a nationwide campaign about the illegality and risks of using child labor in the cotton harvest by posting bulletins and fliers in schools, colleges and lyceums, distribution of printed information on ILO Convention 182 to administrative officials throughout the country, and hosting roundtables and seminars on child labor. Despite these efforts, local officials in some districts violated the decree banning the use of child labor and mobilized children for the cotton harvest. Eleven professional college directors and two farms were fined for using child labor to pick cotton. The government reported farms paid the levied fines; however, it is unclear if the college directors similarly paid the fines. A limited number of students were able to successfully use a government regulation on the prohibition of the cotton harvest interfering with school work to receive an exemption from the harvest. ^^^

“ILO had neither the mandate nor funding to monitor the 2014 harvest, but provided technical support to the government’s monitoring mission. The government conducted monitoring through the creation of eight territorial monitoring groups consisting of government officials, NGO representatives, and the Federation of Trade Unions. These groups conducted 745 interviews across 172 rural regions, including visits to 316 vocational colleges and lyceums and 395 farms. Over the course of the monitoring period, the government reported 41 cases of children picking cotton alongside their parents, as compared with 53 cases of child labor identified during the 2013 harvest. Observers similarly reported a decrease in the number of children mobilized for the 2014 harvest. However, observers also documented local officials in some districts sending entire classes of 13- to17-year-olds to pick cotton towards the end of the harvest and confirmed at least one instance where two children were required to stay out of the cotton fields on a particular day to evade the government’s monitoring.” ^^^

Obstacles to Combating Child Labor in the Cotton Harvest in Uzbekistan

According to the U.S. Department of State: “The government demonstrated mixed law enforcement efforts; although it made efforts to combat sex and transnational labor trafficking, there was no similar effort to address government-compelled forced labor of adults in the cotton harvest and comprehensive enforcement of the decree prohibiting forced child labor lagged, as local officials in some districts mobilized children at the end of the harvest.Article 135 of the criminal code prohibits both forced prostitution and forced labor, and prescribes penalties of three to 12 years’ imprisonment, which are sufficiently stringent and commensurate with punishments prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. [Source: “2015 Trafficking in Persons Report: Uzbekistan”, Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, U.S. Department of State ^^^]

“Official complicity in human trafficking in the cotton harvest remained prevalent. While there were limited reports of students who obtained exemptions from cotton harvesting by citing Uzbekistan-ratified ILO conventions, other students may have faced the threat of suspension, expulsion, or other forms of harassment by school administrators and teachers if they refused to pick cotton.

Forced Labor in Uzbek Cotton Harvest in 2015

Catherine Putz wrote in The Diplomat, “As the cotton harvest moves forward, reports have surfaced indicating that little has changed with regard to adults being forced to pick cotton. The Cotton Campaign notes that the Uzbek government has committed to “promote voluntary recruitment and to prevent mobilization of teachers and healthcare workers for the cotton harvest.” Yet Vice News carried a report last week that says high school and college students have been coerced into signing “voluntary” contracts to work in the fields. [Source: Catherine Putz, The Diplomat, September 25, 2015 ***]

“The Uzbek-German Forum, a human rights organization that is part of the Cotton Campaign’s coalition and is monitoring the harvest, reported on September 4: In Kashkadarya region, administrators of several hospitals required staff to sign a commitment to perform agricultural work and an undated resignation letter. One document read, “I (NAME) commit to actively participate in public and agricultural work. In case of failure to do so, I agree to be dismissed. This document has been written by me.” The other read, “It is my request to resign from this post.” Hospital staff report their concern that if they refuse to pick cotton, a date will be added to the resignation letter to fire them at “their own will.” ***

“On September 24, Human Rights Watch reported that on September 21,“police detained and beat a prominent rights activist, Dmitry Tikhonov, as he was documenting people being sent to the cotton fields.” Two days earlier, Elena Urlaeva and others, including her husband and 11-year old son, were detained. In both cases, the police arrested, intimidated, and ultimately released them without charge. HRW notes that Urlaeva has been detained four times in the last four months. ***

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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