Staunton, November 19 – One of the most notorious practices of the last years of the Soviet Union in Uzbekistan was what was called “voluntary-forced” labor to pick cotton, a practice in which almost all adults and many children who had no connection with agriculture were required to harvest cotton.
Since independence in 1991, Uzbek leaders have repeatedly promised to end the practice which international human rights organizations have sharply criticized; but despite those promises, including some even this year, the practice continues disrupting the lives and inflicting real hardships on the Uzbek people.
In September when Tashkent issued for public discussion a planning document about agriculture through 2030, it appeared that some progress had been made, Alisher Ilkhamov, an Uzbek researcher based in London, says; but then in the final version, released at the end of October all the progressive steps had been removed (cabar.asia/ru/v-chem-prichina-prodolzhayushhejsya-praktiki-dobrovolno-prinuditelnogo-sbora-hlopka-v-uzbekistane/).
The final document, he points out, continues to promise that “voluntary-forced” labor to bring in the cotton harvest will be phased out, but it does not address the underlying problems: the state’s role in defining the harvest numbers it expects and the lack of investment in agriculture that would make it possible for Uzbekistan to do away with this noxious practice.
Tashkent must revise its programmatic document to give farmers more freedom and resources to make decisions on crops and be in a position to harvest them without “voluntary-forced” labor. To that end, members of the international community should take three steps, Alisher says.
First, foreign companies should suspend purchases of Uzbek cotton and textiles until Tashkent shows that it is really committed to doing away with this practice. Second, the International Labor Organization (ILO) should stop misleading itself as to what is going on in Uzbekistan. Instead, it must look at the actual situation rather than just listening to the regime.
And third, “the European Union and the US government, whose views Tashkent still pays attention to, should seek to persuade the Uzbekistan government to make the real reforms it has long promised and so no longer require the forced labor that its state-mandated cotton quotas and low investment in agriculture have required.