Uzbekistan: no systematic child labour but still forced labour

While a World Bank report found that there was no systematic use of child labour during the 2015 cotton harvest in Uzbekistan, forced labour associated with the widespread organised recruitment of adults remains a concern.

The World Bank published the findings of its Third Party Monitoring of the use of child and forced labor during the 2015 cotton harvest in Uzbekistan last Friday, focusing in particular on areas where World Bank-supported projects were implemented. The monitoring was conducted by the International Labor Office (ILO) and found no “conclusive information that beneficiaries of World Bank-supported projects used child or forced labour during the 2015 cotton harvest”.

Just five years ago , the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) had estimated that up to two million children were forced to pick cotton during the 2009 harvesting season in Uzbekistan. Since then, organisations like EJF, the International Labour Organisation, World Bank and others have increased their efforts to end child labour in the Uzbek cotton industry. In addition, prominent apparel labels and retailers like Adidas, C&A, Carrefour, Disney, Gap, H&M, Inditex, Kering, Li & Fung, Nike and Tesco have signed the Uzbek Cotton Pledge, an initiative that opposes the use of child and forced labor in the harvest of Uzbek cotton.

However, both the World Bank and the ILO voiced serious concerns about the risks of forced labour associated with the widespread organised recruitment of adults for cotton harvesting. The ILO monitoring concluded, among other things, that “robust further steps are required to remove the risks of forced labor” and noted that the existence of such risks has been recognised by Uzbek counterparts.

“The year 2015 is the first time when monitoring of forced adult labour in cotton production in Uzbekistan became possible,” said Saroj Kumar Jha, the World Bank's regional director for Central Asia. “This marks significant progress in our long-term strategic engagement with the Uzbek authorities, which ultimately aims at helping Uzbekistan reform its labour practices in the cotton sector and supporting the diversification and modernization of the country’s agriculture sector more broadly.”

“We are encouraged to see progress in a number of areas, such as commitments to the elimination of child labor, the roll-out of an awareness-raising campaign and a national Feedback Mechanism, and the impact of the government’s recent commitment to ensure that health facilities and primary and secondary schools remain open and operational during the harvest,” added Saroj Kumar Jha. “At the same time, we are concerned about the significant risks of forced labor that were identified during the harvest monitoring and will continue working with the government and partners to ensure such risks are effectively mitigated. More needs to be done but we are moving in the right direction.”

Among the long-term goals of the governmet of Uzbekistan and its development partners are the diversification of agriculture production away from cotton towards more value-added products such as dairy, fruits and vegetables; liberalisation of the cotton industry, including through privatization; mechanisation of cotton harvesting where appropriate; and the introduction of market-based labour mobilisation for seasonal cotton pickers.

Image: Children at a rural classroom in Uzbekistan / World Bank
 

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