Uzbekistan and the International Labor Organization (ILO) signed a program on technical cooperation for upcoming three years on April 25, 2014. Priorities of the program among others include the promotion of international labor standards and fundamental principles and rights at work, the promotion of occupational safety and health and the enhancement of social protection for workers.
The signed program is noteworthy because it will support the implementation of the government’s National Action Plan to eliminate child labor. It also focuses on improving the conditions of work and employment in agriculture, including the cotton-harvesting industry in order to promote their development in line with international labor standards and decent work principles.
Uzbekistan is notorious for human rights violations and state-orchestrated use of child labor, as well as forced labor of adults. According to Cotton Campaign, a coalition of NGOs and human rights activists dedicated to eradicating child labor in Uzbekistan, in 2013 at least 11 people died during cotton picking season. Victims’ age range from 6 to 63.
Despite the ban Uzbek national legislature puts on such practices, child labor and forced adult labor are widespread across all regions of the country.
Uzbekistan is a member to the ILO and has signed the Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labor (C182), the Convention on Forced Labor (C029), and the Convention on Abolition of Forced Labor (C105) among other international treaties. The Constitution of Uzbekistan prohibits the use of forced labor. However, the last clause of the Article 37 is vaguely constructed and leaves space for misuse. As it states,
“Any forced labor shall be prohibited, except those ordained as a punishment by court, or in some other instances specified by law.” (See: http://www.gov.uz/en/constitution/)
After signing the Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labor in 2008, the government of Uzbekistan adopted National Action Plan (NAP) to end child labor. In 2012, the government enacted Plan on Additional Measures( PAM) to eliminate forced and child labor. The NAP and the PAM specify categories of people and certain groups that cannot be subjected to forced labor such as school children, college and lyceum students and minors in general. They also establish monitoring system to track the use of child labor during cotton harvesting season at district, regional and national level.
However, the laws and the NAP and PAM were never applied fully in practice and do not reflect the reality on the ground. Use of school children in cotton harvesting decreased, but did not end. College and lyceum students are continuously being sent to cotton fields despite the fact that they fall under “the category of minors” specified by law. Organs responsible for monitoring the implementation of the Action Plan, in fact, helped educational institutions mobilize the students and adults into cotton harvesting, according to witnesses.
When ILO observers were allowed to visit Uzbekistan in 2013 to observe the situation, there were special preparations in advance to make sure they do not come across with people who are picking cotton under force. However, allowing the ILO visit inside the country caused some hope for change. Some even view the decreased number of school children in cotton fields as a success in the fight against child labor.
The nature of child labor and forced labor in Uzbekistan is different from what other countries experience. In countries like China, Peru and Vietnam, places where use of child labor is widespread according to the ILO, it is usually private entities that use children and adults in forced labor, and not the government. The government is held responsible only for not preventing and protecting the victims from the third parties’ abuse.
Also, in such countries, poverty and poor economic conditions usually force people to be voluntarily victim of such situations.
The case of Uzbekistan is different. In this country, families are not starving to death, and they are not under compulsion to send their children to work to earn a livelihood. It is only the state and its institutions that initiate forced labor in the name of hashar or community work “to help the nation gather its national wealth”, which mostly occurs during a cotton-harvesting season. National and local hasharlar are often organized throughout the year to do a public work that range from cleaning streets to planting trees by public institutions that receive their budget from the government.Recently, in city renovation projects that are being carried out in many regions of the country, it is becoming a common practice for local government authorities to force the private entities and businessmen to add their share to such projects in the form of financial contribution. All these activities constitute various forms of forced labor and violation of human rights.Police office to oversee the cotton harvest, Syrdarya region, September 2013. © Uzbek – German Forum for Human Rights
As part of the implementation process of the technical cooperation program between the ILO and Uzbekistan signed in April 2014, the Cabinet of Ministers issued a decree №132 on May 27, 2014. An attachment to this decree, Additional measures on implementation of the ratified conventions of the ILO by the Republic of Uzbekistan in 2014-2016, sets several new procedures that have not appeared in previous the NAP, PAM or other related government documents.
Accordingly, a new edition of Law on the Protection of Labor will be adopted, and amendments will be made to current laws on labor to improve labor norms for women and youth. The ratified ILO conventions and rights of children will be taught as part of the curriculum at schools, lyceums and colleges.
Uzbekistan is also expected to join the International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC) of the ILO at some time, which is a praise-worthy step.
Moreover, institutional base will be created for freely hiring cotton pickers by farmers through labor market. A special position of labor inspectors will be created in each district and city, which should serve as a watchdog on the use of child labor and forced labor. When illegal labor practices noticed, they should report it to the government body in charge of the implementation plan. Special radio and TV shows will also be produced and aired in local and national radio and TV stations to raise awareness among the population on the implementation of the ILO conventions in Uzbekistan.
One becomes very hopeful reading clauses such as the one that establishes a new hiring process to freely hire cotton pickers through labor market, implementation of which would end the use of forced and child labor and also create new employment opportunities for the population in rural areas because it is expected to raise cotton-picking fees based on demand and supply in labor market.
However, amendments to the current legislature on labor conditions for women and youth do not clarify if conditions would improve for all cotton pickers. Because children and adults who are forced to pick cotton or do it voluntarily do not have an employment contract, and the law only covers, and applies to, those that have employment contract.
Signing a technical cooperation program is a very good step in the process of ending child labor and forced labor in Uzbekistan. However, it is too early to be optimistic about positive changes. Based on the past experiences of the country, it is likely true to say that Tashkent is gathering another set of documents to show the world that there is no space for child labor or forced labor in Uzbekistan. While Uzbekistan is good at perfecting laws, it has also mastered disregarding their implementation.
 The Administrative Code of Uzbekistan, Article 51.
 The Administrative Code of Uzbekistan, Article 491.