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Uzbek Cotton Boycott is not Over

The findings of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) regarding cotton-picking in Uzbekistan contradict numerous cases of forced labour reported by human rights activists and journalists.


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Alisher Ilkhamov. Photo: Facebook

This year, like never before, Radio Ozodlik has almost on a daily basis covered the course of the cotton campaign based on the reports of the whole army of the so-called civic journalists in the country. Almost all of these publications have been the evidence of the on-going forced labour practice that remains systematic and wide-scale this season. The only improvement has been the non-involvement of university students in the cotton-picking.

For more details please see:  Is Uzbekistan Free from Forced Cotton-Picking?

The ILO’s data also contradict the fact that the cotton industry still has the strictly centralised, command and administration system, or the so-called top-down quotas, which are mandatory for farmers and local authorities.

Khokims of districts and oblasts are still personally responsible for the fulfilment of plan targets regarding the delivery of raw cotton to purchasing centres. And this system is inevitably based on the need to use forced labour on a massive scale. The ILO’s “studies” completely neglect this political economy of the cotton industry in Uzbekistan.

Moreover, the monitoring methodology used by the ILO mission is beneath criticism. Such experts as professor Kristian Lasslett of Ulster University, Elaine Fultz, former regional director of ILO for Eurasia, and Andrei Mors, expert in labour rights, have expressed their opinions on the subject.

ILO in its findings is based on the survey held by hired consultants. Yet, in my opinion, in the authoritarian state known for its repressive regime and daily brainwashing of citizens via controlled media channels, it’s a problem to hold the so-called quantitative studies on politically sensitive topics. Even if a researcher doesn’t fudge the data and does his job honestly, the results of the survey won’t reflect the reality because every answer to the interviewer’s question regarding politics or attitude to the state policy is socially expected. And forced labour is one of such politically risky topics.

Photo: kommersant.uz

During our past studies, which were held honestly and scrupulously, we received quite a rosy picture to our questions like “What is the direction Uzbekistan is heading, is it right or wrong?” However, I have no doubt that these have been socially expected answers driven by the interviewee’s fear to tell the truth or by persuasive state propaganda.

Quantitative methods may be used in marketing studies regarding politically neutral topics. However, if we hold a survey regarding forced labour in a situation when the authorities strictly warn cotton-pickers to provide “proper” information to various controllers, the findings of such studies should be treated at least with caution. In such cases, we should first compare this data to other observations made by activists and journalists, and in case of any differences between them, we should make additional verification or provide reasonable explanation to such differences.

Such deep gaps in the methodology used by the ILO’s mission are just one of the reasons of differences between its findings and the reports by human rights activists and journalists. Another possible reason is the goal and relevant strategy of the ILO Secretariat to establish rapprochement with Uzbekistan.

Compromises and concessions

In exchange for an opportunity to open the office and establish relations of cooperation and dialogue with the Uzbek government, the ILO Secretariat might have found it possible to make concessions in assessing the situation in the country. Exaggerated assessment of Uzbekistan by the organisation is a kind of credit granted to the country pending the continuation and deepening of cooperation. Thus, the report by ILO mission should be treated rather as a diplomatic action, not as an unbiased and honest study that meets the international standards.

I wouldn’t disregard the possibility of common bribery by the government of Uzbekistan, which is a normal practice used by the Uzbek authorities.

The United States also have similar cases of lobbying in favour of Karimov’s, and now Mirziyoyev’s regime. However, I don’t think such mercantile interests are important in this case. The reasons here are rather political, or “pro-engagement politics”, as they call it in the West. The practice of concessions and flattery is quite typical of such an approach.

Mutual benefit

First of all, the findings of ILO’s study are beneficial to the government of Uzbekistan, which seeks a way out of isolation and into global markets, particular for domestic cotton and textiles. However, it’s not ready to pay full price for that – reforms in its agrarian sector.

The ILO Secretariat is concerned with such findings because it wants to maintain its presence in the country and the level of dialogue with the Uzbek government that has been reached so far. For the organisation, it’s an opportunity to take the country off the list of countries, which are deemed difficult for the promotion of the ILO standards. Previously, ILO had its representative in Uzbekistan, but after the criticism of child labour in Uzbekistan by former director of the Moscow office, Elaine Fultz, mentioned above, the authorities have expelled this representative from the country. Now ILO is trying to solidify in the country and is ready for compromises, particularly, by distorting the situation of forced labour.

Photo: uzex.uz

Some companies that would want to purchase cotton or cotton textiles in Uzbekistan but couldn’t do it for moral reasons might be concerned as well. Now they have a reason to stop boycotting the Uzbek cotton. It was the risk of such boycott that has made Karimov redirect cotton export to Asian countries, less sensitive in terms of morals, yet less profitable to Uzbekistan. The Uzbek authorities have come to terms with ILO and started cooperating with it in order to get access to western markets of textiles.

However, I think the Uzbek authorities are wrong if they think that the Uzbek cotton boycott is over. The idea of boycott and calls for it can resume again if Uzbekistan fails to reform its cotton industry and to eliminate the forced labour practice orchestrated by the state.


The articles published in “Opinions” are solely personal opinions of the authors.