WASHINGTON — A human rights organization alleged in a new report that the Uzbekistan government has persecuted independent monitors and failed to undertake reforms to end the systematic use of forced labor in its cotton industry.
The Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights said in its “Harvest Report 2015” that the government continued to force more than a million people to pick cotton and coerced farmers to grow cotton under the threat of penalty, while “making significant efforts to project the appearance of cooperation with the International Labor Organization and to claim compliance with its commitments to the World Bank to apply labor laws.”
A broad list of apparel brands and retailers, beginning in 2008, made a pledge to stop using cotton from Uzbekistan. Among them are American Eagle Outfitters Inc., Ann Taylor Inc., Macy’s Inc., Columbia Sportswear Co., Gap Inc., Hanesbrands Inc., Levi Strauss & Co., Marks & Spencer, Nordstrom Inc., Target Corp., J.C. Penney Co., Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Kohl’s Corp., and TJ Maxx.
The Uzbek government has also been named on U.S. government watch lists. Last year, the State Department elevated Uzbekistan from a Tier 3 country, which can trigger economic and military sanctions against a country, to the Tier 2 Watch list in its “2015 Trafficking in Persons Report.”
The Cotton Campaign, a coalition of human rights organizations, NGOs, trade unions and businesses associations, sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry at the time, criticizing the agency’s elevation of Uzbekistan, acknowledging that “limited changes” have taken place, but noting that there was scant evidence of “significant efforts” to bring the country into compliance with minimum standards of the law.
In the new report, the Uzbek-German Foundation said the Uzbek government had “a lot at stake” to come into compliance with ILO and World Bank standards, but failed to do so.
The group said the World Bank invested $500 million in Uzbekistan’s agricultural sector to address the problem and attached loan covenants stipulating the loans could be stopped and subject to repayment if forced or child labor was detected during the cotton harvest.
“Instead of good faith efforts to reform, the government appeared to double down on coercion,” the report alleged. “The government’s 2015 ‘re-optimization’ plan for agriculture punished farmers in debt or who failed to meet production quotas by taking back their land.”
It further charged that under a government plan dubbed “Cleaver,” the prime minister ordered bailiffs and police to repossess farmers’ properties for debts or unfulfilled production quotas. In addition, livestock, tractors and TVs were allegedly confiscated without court orders, according to the report.
“The government’s procurement price for cotton, set at less than production costs, and system of government-controlled monopolies for agricultural inputs and purchasing, conspired to keep farmers in a cycle of crippling debt,” the report charged.
According to the report, the Uzbek government “unleashed an unprecedented campaign of harassment and persecution against independent monitors to attempt to cover up its use of forced labor while taking pains to make widespread, massive forced mobilization appear voluntary.”
The human rights group made several recommendations in the report, including requiring the government to enforce national laws prohibiting forced and child labor, make public high-level policy statements condemning forced labor, refraining from coercion and allowing independent monitors and journalists to document and report concerns without fear of reprisal.
The report also recommended that the ILO establish, monitor and report on clear benchmarks for the government, ensure participation of various unions and raise concerns about safety and access of independent monitors.
It also urged the World Bank to suspend disbursements until the Uzbek government shows “meaningful progress” toward reform and called on the U.S. to place Uzbekistan on the State Department’s Tier 3 list in its 2016 report and exclude imports of cotton from Uzbekistan from the Generalized System of Preferences duty-free benefits.