The government increased prevention efforts. The government took steps to modify agricultural policies that created pressure for the use of forced labor, including by increasing wages to pickers, increasing cotton purchasing prices to farmers, and beginning implementation of its commitment not to mobilize teachers, medical workers, and college and lyceum students. The 2017 harvest marked the fourth consecutive year the government conducted a nationwide campaign to raise public awareness of its prohibition of child labor in the cotton harvest. International observers and Uzbek activists acknowledged the government’s eradication of systemic child labor, including systemic compelled child labor, although anecdotal reports of forced child labor continued in a limited number of instances. The government, in coordination with the ILO, conducted an awareness raising campaign to ensure all citizens were aware of their labor rights. The campaign featured over 400 roadside banners along major highways, and the distribution of brochures and posters to educational and health care facilities, as well as informative commercials on major television and radio networks. However, the central government continued to demand farmers and local officials fulfill state-assigned cotton production quotas, leading to the mobilization of adult forced labor; the ILO estimated that of the workforce of approximately 2.6 million, at least 336,000 were forced or coerced to work. Farmers who were unable to fulfill their quotas risked losing the rights to farm their government leased land; there was at least one report of this occurring during the reporting period. Although teachers, students, and medical workers were initially mobilized, the government did implement a recall of these groups from the cotton fields in the early stages of the harvest in September 2017. The ban on these pickers was unevenly implemented, with reports that some public sector employees returned to the fields within weeks of the demobilization. According to observers, the 2017 harvest saw an unprecedented increase in the coercion of public sector employees to pick cotton, or pay for a replacement worker, creating a penalty for not participating in the forced labor system. Officials required, and in some cases compelled, state employees and adult students to sign labor agreements or statements that they would pick cotton voluntarily. Independent observers asserted that public employees were instructed to tell monitors that they were unemployed. “Cotton command units,” led by local government officials, personally visited households of unemployed people or the homes of individuals who did not show up in the fields in order to ensure their mobilization.
For a third consecutive year, the government agreed to allow the ILO to monitor the cotton harvest for child and forced labor, allowed ILO monitors access to the cotton fields accompanied by government monitors, and allowed the ILO to publish the results of a survey of the prevalence of child and forced labor during the 2017 harvest. ILO monitors were granted unimpeded access to interview laborers, unlike in previous years. Although, as in previous years, a government official accompanied ILO monitors to field observations, the official was not privy to the observation location before the monitoring team arrived at the destination, and did not observe or participate in the interviews. The official’s participation served largely to ensure access to the fields if local officials questioned the ILO’s presence. The government continued to publicize its Cotton Harvest Feedback Mechanism, which included telephone hotlines and messaging apps dedicated to receiving reports of labor violations, receiving over 7,300 inquiries and complaints, 121 of which were related to labor rights during the cotton harvest. Of the complaints received, 36 were related to forced labor and eight resulted in the discovery of confirmed child labor cases. Government officials identified 641 persons forced into the fields, opened 42 lawsuits, issued 116 administrative citations, and issued fines totaling 220.5 million soum ($27,460) as a result of information received through the feedback mechanism. Observers reported concerns about the effectiveness of the feedback mechanism, stating that some pickers had concerns about reprisals or the effectiveness of investigations. Although activists reported less physical abuse and decreased harassment as compared to previous years, temporary detentions, surveillance, and some harassment continued. For the first time, in 2017 the government investigated forced labor cases identified by activists, resulting in administrative penalties for local officials. Media reported on forced labor practices for the first time; bloggers who highlighted forced labor problems were not penalized or censored. Some state media outlets featured audio or video recordings of public officials encouraging civil servants to participate in the cotton harvest, which publicly shamed the officials and increased labor rights awareness.
The government slightly reduced the area of land available for the cultivation of cotton and increased its capacity for mechanization by continuing to develop appropriate cotton cultivars and by training farmers on mechanization. The government continued several projects aimed at modernization of the cotton industry, including a five-year partnership on agricultural reform with the World Bank, which included measures to prevent forced labor; a four year Decent Work Country Program extension to improve employment opportunities, working conditions and social protections; and began implementation of pilot projects with the International Finance Corporation and private companies to work on mechanization and responsibly cultivated cotton. Additionally, the government implemented ILO recommendations, such as increasing both remuneration to pickers and purchasing prices available to farmers.
The Uzbek Agency for Foreign Labor Migration increased outreach to prospective labor migrants, serving to reduce potential risks of trafficking among this population. The Agency conducted pre-departure consultations on labor and migration laws in the country of destination. The government reported 34 migrants used these centers before departures for work in Russia. The government also signed agreements with Russia, Japan, and Poland in 2017 to establish centers for training workers for jobs in these countries. A representative Russian Ministry of Interior office opened in Samarkand in November 2017. Media reports indicate that 12 Uzbek citizens found employment in Poland through the agreement.
The national government conducted monitoring visits and provided training to a national network of local-level commissions. Authorities promoted wide-scale public awareness efforts on transnational sex and labor trafficking, including through events, print media, television, and radio, often through partnering with and providing in-kind support to NGOs. The government maintained several hotlines in addition to the cotton harvest feedback mechanism—one of which provided free legal advice; in 2017 the lines received 125 requests related to migration and human trafficking. An NGO maintained a foreign donor-funded hotline. The NGO received 2,879 phone calls; among these calls were 224 allegations of human trafficking and 712 requests for repatriation. The organization accepted 70 repatriation requests by trafficking victims and assisted a total of 205 people. The government prohibited the participation of educational institutions in scrap metal collection. The government did not conduct efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts.