The government increased prevention efforts. In July 2019, the president of Uzbekistan created the National Commission on Trafficking in Persons and Forced Labor (the Commission) and appointed the chair of the Senate as the national rapporteur. The Commission was composed of two high-level sub-committees: one on trafficking in persons, chaired by the Minister of Internal Affairs, and one on forced labor, chaired by the Minister of Employment and Labor Relations. The Commission initiated the creation of regional commissions chaired by the governors of the country’s 12 regions, one autonomous republic, and one independent city (Tashkent). The Commission convened monthly, and the regional commissions met every 14 days. Members of the anti-trafficking community from Uzbekistan’s civil society participated in the national and regional meetings. The government adopted a national action plan, a roadmap developed by an NGO, and a series of recommendations submitted to the government by an international organization.
The government continued to take significant steps to reduce the mobilization of its citizens for the forced picking of cotton, including by increasing wages to cotton pickers by 15 percent above 2018 rates for the first pass, maintaining its commitment to not mobilize students, improving working conditions for pickers, and fulfilling its new commitment to not mobilize teachers and medical workers. The 2019 harvest marked the sixth consecutive year the government conducted a nationwide campaign to raise public awareness of its prohibition of child labor in the cotton harvest. The government continued to uphold its ban against the use of child labor in the annual cotton harvest; while there were isolated reports of children working in the fields, there continued to be no reports of systemic mobilization. The government, in coordination with the ILO, continued to conduct awareness-raising campaigns to ensure all citizens were aware of their labor rights. During the 2019 harvest, the central government continued to set cotton production quotas and demand farmers and local officials fulfill these state-assigned quotas, which subsequently led to the mobilization of adult forced labor in some places. Farmers who were unable to fulfill their quotas risked losing the rights to farm their government-leased land. In March 2020, the government announced it would permanently eliminate the cotton quota system for the 2020 fall harvest and onwards.
In previous reporting periods, the government coerced government-employed teachers and medical workers to perform fieldwork without pay and under threat of penalty, including dismissal from their jobs. During the 2019 fall harvest, however, the central government emphasized through wide-reaching awareness campaigns the ban on mobilization of teachers and medical workers. The ILO reported the government effectively implemented the prohibition on forcing students, teachers, nurses, and doctors; independent third-party monitors did not observe these groups picking cotton. Observers continued to credit the increased remuneration for attracting more voluntary cotton pickers in the first weeks of the harvest, including a large number of otherwise unemployed pickers. The government reported it also exempted pickers’ wages from income tax (12 percent) and compulsory savings (seven percent). After the first picking round of the harvest, voluntary laborers decreased, as cotton became less plentiful and the weather worsened. Reports of forced labor increased, particularly in the regions of Syrdarya, Surkhandarya, Khorezm, and Tashkent. To fill the voluntary labor void, local government officials in some regions mobilized other public employees, among others, those at factories, grain mills, utility companies, banks, law enforcement agencies, firefighters, and soldiers, as well as prisoners. The ILO and civil society reported instances of local government officials in some areas requiring public sector employees to pick cotton, or pay for a replacement worker through an unregulated, informal system, creating a penalty for not participating in the forced labor system and a lucrative means of extortion for corrupt officials. In some cases, local governments pressured private businesses to provide pickers or pay fees to support the harvest, although it was not always clear if the fees funded payment of local administrative costs, or were a means of extortion. NGOs reported many of the voluntary pickers preferred to be hired as replacement pickers by those seeking to avoid the cotton fields, which enabled them to earn income beyond the picking wages.
For the fifth consecutive year, the government allowed the ILO to monitor the cotton harvest for child and forced labor, and ILO monitors had unimpeded access to the cotton fields for observations and to interview laborers. The ILO assessed the government forced approximately 102,000 pickers out of an estimated 1.75 million member workforce to work in the 2019 harvest; a decrease compared with 170,000 in 2018 and 336,000 in 2017. However, the ILO noted that in 2019 the annual rate in the reduction of forced laborers has slowed compared with previous years. Some experts continued to criticize the ILO’s methodology and assessed that the ILO findings underestimated the level of forced labor in the harvest; however, the experts agreed the government was making concerted efforts to reduce forced labor. For the second year, the government granted the ILO access to data acquired through the government’s Cotton Harvest Feedback Mechanism, which included telephone hotlines and messaging applications dedicated to receiving reports of labor violations; the mechanism received 1,563 complaints related to forced labor during the cotton harvest season, and the government allowed the ILO to observe how it addressed such complaints. The government doubled the number of labor investigators assigned to look into these complaints across the country to 400. The government reported these complaints resulted in fines to 259 officials totaling 550 million soum ($57,890), compared with 202 fines in 2018. The government did not share additional details on the total number of forced labor victims, including children, identified through the mechanism. Observers continued to report concerns about the effectiveness of the feedback mechanism, stating some pickers were concerned about reprisal or the effectiveness of investigations. For the second year, the government included independent human rights activists in plans to monitor the harvest, conduct field interviews, participate in awareness raising activities, and review cases gathered through the mechanism. Observers reported isolated incidents in which local government officials harassed and temporarily detained independent civil society who attempted to monitor the cotton harvest. Media, including state media outlets, continued to report on forced labor practices, problems, and violations without penalization or censorship.
The government continued to implement ILO recommendations, further reduced land allocated for cotton cultivation, and purchased more machinery to work toward the mechanization of the harvest. In 2019, the government reported opening an additional 61 private textile-cotton clusters (13 in 2018), which accounted for 63 percent of cotton production land. The clusters processed cotton from cultivation to finished textile products and paid higher wages to workers. While the ILO reported a reduced risk of forced labor within clusters, the central government still set quotas for these private clusters during the reporting period, and independent observers continued to identify instances of forced labor on cluster farmlands.
In the previous reporting period, the government reported encouraging ministers to use a special fund under the Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations to recruit unemployed individuals for public works, instead of compelling civil servants and students to perform public works. The government did not report how much money it allocated to the fund in 2019, compared with allocating 714 billion soum ($75.16 million) to this fund in 2018. The Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations did note it had collected 6.6 billion soum ($694,740) in fines for labor violations which were contributed to the fund. In 2019, the government ratified four ILO conventions; Convention 144 on tripartite consultation (international labor standards), Protocol P029 of 2014 to the forced labor convention, Convention 129 on labor inspection in agriculture, and Convention 81 on labor inspection and industry and trade. An NGO reported the central government continued to set silk cocoon production quotas; officials stated their intent to significantly increase silk production in private homes, despite the hazardous nature of home silk production. The government continued to call for hashar, or volunteer workdays, throughout the country; some local leaders characterized cotton picking and street cleaning as hashar.
The government provided support to labor migrants abroad, including victims of forced labor, and allocated a budget of 200 billion soum ($21.05 million) for assistance to labor migrants. The Uzbekistan Agency for Foreign Labor Migration continued 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, which issued health insurance, cell phone SIM cards, and provided detailed information about how to legally enter, remain, and work in Russia. The government also operated a 24-hour hotline in Russia that provided Uzbek labor migrants with legal advice and advised them of their rights, and directed them to the nearest consulate for assistance. The government maintained employment agreements to protect citizens’ labor rights with Japan, Poland, Russia, South Korea, and Turkey. Private companies, including foreign and local, had official permission from the government to recruit Uzbek citizens for jobs abroad and within Uzbekistan. Although the companies were required to obtain licenses, the government did not report the number of licenses granted nor any monitoring of recruitment fees charged to job applicants.
The expanded labor inspectorate conducted 21,172 inspections and investigated 18,332 complaints in 2019; the inspectorate did not provide additional information on forced labor cases, or report screening for trafficking indicators or referring any cases for criminal investigation. The labor inspectorate was not empowered to bring criminal charges for first time violations of the law against forced labor. Authorities continued to hold 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 a 24-hour hotline; in 2019, the line received 422 trafficking-related phone calls, of which 75 were identified as trafficking victims. An NGO maintained a foreign donor-funded hotline. The government did not conduct efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts.