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What Is the Reason for the Continued Practice of Forced Cotton Picking in Uzbekistan?

«The approved roadmap for the development of Uzbekistan’s agricultural sector raises doubts about the government’s intentions to curtail forced labor in cotton harvest», notes independent researcher Alisher Ilkhamov in his article for CABAR.asia.

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The approved roadmap for the development of Uzbekistan’s agricultural sector raises doubts about the government’s intentions to curtail forced labor in cotton harvest. You can come to this conclusion by reading the President’s decree of October 23, 2019 “On Approving the Strategy for the Development of Agriculture in the Republic of Uzbekistan for 2020 – 2030”.

A content of the document suggests that a super-centralized management system based on command-and-control methods, forcing farmers to grow and harvest cotton, as well as compulsory quotas for raw cotton delivery to the state, will continue. The issued decree and its annexes – the Strategy for the Development of Agriculture and the Roadmap for its implementation – do not validate the government’s serious intention to reform the industry.

Despite numerous commitments to curtail forced labor in the cotton sector, the country’s leadership has not yet shown significant progress in reforming the cotton industry, which is a crucial step in dismantling the forced labor system.

Government’s “double game”

Uzbek authorities have denied the forced labor issue in the cotton industry for many years. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, speaking at the UN General Assembly in September 2017, finally admitted its existence, stating[1] that the Uzbek government in cooperation with International Labor Organization (ILO) is working on eradication of the practice. The scale of the forced mobilization of students, employees of budgetary organizations and the private sector has solemnly decreased. The latest achievement was the last year’s termination of mobilization of teachers and medical staff at clinics and hospitals.

However, a massive mobilization of the population to the cotton harvest remains a serious issue. This practice sustained widespread during the harvest season last year. There were hopes that at least in 2019 this practice will finally be fully dismantled. But apparently, this year does not live up to expectations. There are many documented and published records of mobilization of budgetary organizations employees, bank employees,[2] police students, military personnel,[3] prisoners, [4] as well as massive extortion[5] from individuals and businesses for payment to hired cotton farmers (mardikors).

On the video shared in social media, dozens of young employees in uniform — students at the training center shout: “We are not going to the harvest!” Video: Gazeta.uz

What is the reason for the continued practice of forced labor? After all, the government claims that it imposed a ban on the forced mobilization of the people and is ready to punish those who do not follow these instructions. It also claims to allegedly equip 400 inspectors to monitor the implementation of this ban. [6]Even President Mirziyoyev in August, for the umpteenth time, urged[7] to combat forced labor.

Judges and employees of regional, district and city administrative courts went to pick cotton in the Pastdargom district of the Samarkand region on October 20, 2019. Photo: Telegram channel of the Supreme Court of the Republic of Uzbekistan.

Yet, it seems that the government is playing a double game on this issue.

On the one hand, part of the government seems to be empowered to combat forced labor in cotton fields and to work closely with the ILO. Particularly, these powers are consigned to the Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations. Its representatives occasionally threaten “violators” of the ban on forced labor with sanctions. In fact, the ministry never bothered to publish the lists of officials who fell under these sanctions, indicating which sanctions were applied. To strengthen this Ministry of Labor’s mission, Mirziyoyev appointed[8] Tanzil Norbayev, Senate Chairman of the Oliy Majlis, as a special rapporteur on the issue.

Related article: Uzbek Cotton Boycott is not Over

On the other hand, no one has yet canceled the centrally deflated and binding quotas for cotton delivery. Agencies such as the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Agriculture, and local khokims are still responsible for the delivery of production quotas. Khokims are the most visible public figures giving instructions on mobilizing people to pick cotton. They essentially have no other choice but to resort to the old practice of forced mobilization and all kinds of tricks to hide the fact of coercion (for example, forcing[9] pickers to sign statements that they voluntarily join the harvest campaign). Indeed, given the existing price scissors (artificially low prices imposed from above for cotton that do not cover production costs), it is impossible to attract labor to harvest by economic incentives alone.

The khokims, in their servile job, rationally decide on which orders from above to prioritize, cotton delivery or “bans” on forcing people to harvest.

The khokims, in their servile job, rationally decide on which orders from above to prioritize, cotton delivery or “bans” on forcing people to harvest. They are aware that failure to meet master plan on cotton delivery will be followed by penalty, up to and including termination of office, and breach of the “bans” is threatened by probable scolding.

Related article: Is Uzbekistan Free from Forced Cotton-Picking?

At the same time, the government has an ambitious intent to cease[10] exporting raw cotton in 2020, processing it inside the country to export value-added products – yarn, fabrics and even clothing. Among other things, this plan is interrupted by the boycott[11] of Uzbek cotton, announced by more than 300 companies in the world. This boycott extends to cotton textiles. The government seeks lifting of cotton boycott. It can be done by convincing those companies on the reform efforts to eliminate forced labor. But are there any?

Foggy Road Map

On October 23[12], President signed the Decree “On Approving the Strategy for the Development of Agriculture in the Republic of Uzbekistan for 2020 – 2030”. Attached to this Decree are the Strategy itself and the Roadmap for its implementation, with specific measures and deadlines for their implementation.

In the strategy itself, section III entitled “Decreasing the role of the state in industry management and increasing investment attractiveness” lists different priorities. Among them is vague in meaning “decreasing the role of the state in industry management” (agricultural production) and to completely abandon public procurement, “except to the volumes necessary for the implementation of cereal crops interventions to ensure price stability in the domestic market”. It sounds well but unclear when the backoff is scheduled.

The Roadmap logically should have elaborated specific measures and their deadlines. Looking at the relevant section of the document, “Decreasing the role of the state in industry management …”, we find the following measures:

  • Development of investment programs to target credit lines of international financial institutions based on the results of assessing the needs of the agricultural sector in private investments and soft loans.
  • Development of additional measures to advance public-private partnership in the agricultural sector.
  • Increased competition in the market of logistic resources through privatization of non-strategic state enterprises supplying logistic resources and providing services to farmers and agricultural processing enterprises. For that:
  • abandon supply of logistic resources and provision of services at the expense of state credit funds;
  • introduce standardized upfront contracts as an experiment to promote stable trade relations between agricultural entities.
  • The transition to a subsidy system by the State Support Fund for Agriculture under the Ministry of Finance of solely interest rates on commercial banks’ loans.
  • Ensuring a complete transition to an agricultural support system that stimulates the intensification of agricultural production.
  • Abandon practice of placing crops by the state.

And that’s all. No other measures are indicated, and nothing about the abolition of mandatory quotas for the cotton delivery to the state. The only measure is abandoning “practice of placing crops by the state”, that is, abandoning the practice of forcing farmers to allocate a certain number of hectares in their farms for cotton or grain. But the implementation is planned only in the first quarter of 2023. That is, for at least another three years the farmer will be under servitude.

Thus, the strategic priority to abolish the forced state-established cotton delivery is not supported by an appropriate mechanism for its implementation. This implies that the priority turns out to be nothing more than an empty, non-binding declaration.

Interestingly, the draft of this decree, including the Strategy and the Roadmap, was published[13] in September of this year for wide discussion. Regarding the institutional drivers of forced labor practice, the draft was much more progressive than the adopted decree. The relevant Road Map’s section indicates the following measures:

  • “Completely cease state procurement of raw cotton and wheat, with the exception of purchases to maintain the intervention fund” (scheduled for January 1, 2021).
  • “Restrict practice of placing crops by the state, applying it only to cotton and grain” (January 1, 2020)
  • “Increase competition in the market of logistic resources through privatization of non-strategic state enterprises supplying logistic resources, providing services to farmers and processing agricultural products” (September 1, 2020).

All this vanished in the final document. Supporters of the old model of centralized industry management must have achieved dismissal of these points and complete emasculation of the program on cotton sector reformation. These lobbyists were apparently successful in convincing decision-makers in cruciality to maintain full government control over the export of raw cotton. It is the desire to maintain this control that becomes the main obstacle in the cotton sector reform efforts, as the author wrote[14] earlier.

What are the recommendations in this regard?

  • The Government of Uzbekistan should revise the Cotton Sector Development Strategy and the Road Map in order to ensure and guarantee economic freedom to farmers, particularly in how to manage their land, what crops to grow on this land, to whom to sell their products and at what prices, from whom and at what prices to buy seeds, fuel, agrochemicals, services, etc.
  • Companies still doubting whether to buy Uzbek cotton and textiles are encouraged to wait for more convincing guarantees from the government that the institutional drivers of forced labor will be eliminated. Other potential investors in the cotton textile industry and international financial institutions should also pay attention to how consistently Uzbek authorities carry out reforms in the cotton sector. The principles of corporate social responsibility for their decisions and actions urge them to this approach.
  • The Secretariat of the International Labor Organization should no longer let mislead itself on the real progress in the eradication of the institutional causes of forced labor in Uzbekistan. The organization should pay attention to causal relationships, to what creates the demand for forced labor in this country, and not just to the consequences of these causes.
  • The European Union and the US government, whose views Uzbekistan still listens to, are encouraged to try to persuade the Uzbek government for real reform efforts in the cotton sector as a decisive factor in eradicating forced labor.

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.

[1] National News Agency of Uzbekistan, 20.09.2017, http://uza.uz/ru/politics/prezident-uzbekistana-shavkat-mirziyeev-vystupil-na-72-y-ses-20-09-2017

[2] Fergana news, 16.09.19, https://fergana.agency/news/110803/

[3] Radio Ozodlik, September 11, 2019, https://rus.ozodlik.org/a/30158067.html

[4] Stan Radar, 01.11.2019, https://stanradar.com/news/full/36908-pravozaschitnyj-aljans-uzbekistana-na-hlopke-voennye-zakljuchennye-i-sotrudniki-gospredprijatij.html

[5] https://fergana.agency/news/111713/

[6] Gazeta.uz, 13 September 2019, https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2019/09/13/forced-labour/

[7] Kun.uz, 13.08.2019, https://kun.uz/ru/news/2019/08/13/mirziyoyev-napomnil-xokimam-o-nedopustimosti-prinuditelnogo-truda-pri-sbore-xlopka

[8] SputnikNews, 25.10.2019, https://uz.sputniknews.ru/politics/20191025/12679520/Tanzila-Narbaeva-vozlozhila-tsvety-k-pamyatniku-Alishera-Navoi-v-Yaponii.html

[9] Current Time Asia, 11 September 2019, https://www.currenttime.tv/a/uzbek-cotton-field-sbor-khlopka/30158585.html

[10] Fergana, 08.10.19,  https://fergana.agency/news/111496/

[11] Responsible Sourcing Network, https://www.sourcingnetwork.org/uzbek-cotton-pledge

[12] LexUz Online, http://lex.uz/ru/docs/4567337

[13] Regulation.gov.uz, 28/09/2019, https://regulation.gov.uz/ru/document/7865 

[14] Alisher Ilkhamov, Uzbek government continues to consider the cotton sector as its “cash cow”, April 29, 2019,  http://uzbekgermanforum.org/uzbek-expert-the-uzbek-government-continues-to-consider-the-cotton-sector-as-its-cash-cow/

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