The government increased prevention efforts. The government maintained its National Commission on Trafficking in Persons and Forced Labor (the Commission) with the Chair of the Senate serving as the National Rapporteur. The Commission comprised 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 directed the activities of regional commissions in 12 regions, one autonomous republic, and one independent city (Tashkent). The Commission continued to convene monthly, and the regional commissions met every 14 days, despite pandemic-related challenges. Members of Uzbekistan’s anti-trafficking civil society landscape participated in the national and regional meetings. Some international observers described insufficient coordination and communication between the Commission and civil society partners in the absence of a secretariat structure. The government did not centrally allocate funding for the Commission, which instead required funding contributions from individual member ministries’ budgets; this arrangement reportedly led to overreliance on NGO and international assistance. The government updated its national action plan to reflect international input in 2020 but did not provide information on these updates; it also maintained a roadmap developed by an NGO and a series of recommendations submitted to the government by an international organization during a previous reporting period.
Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest was unimpeded by the pandemic in 2020. A combination of ongoing robust mechanization efforts, continued awareness-raising activities, continued consolidation of the cotton sector into a privatized “cluster”-based system, increased wages for cotton pickers, some improved recruitment practices, and the government-facilitated voluntary participation of hundreds of thousands of unemployed migrant workers as a pandemic-mitigation measure significantly reduced the incidence of forced labor in the 2020 harvest. According to the ILO, reports of forced labor in cotton picking decreased by 33 percent in 2020. 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 2020, the government reported increasing the total number of private textile-cotton clusters to 96 – nearly 30 more than the previous year – accounting for more than 90 percent of arable production land (an increase from 63 percent in 2019). The clusters processed cotton from cultivation to finished textile products and paid higher wages to workers. Approximately 30 percent of established cluster sites also provided technical services and methodological advice to participating farmers. The government reiterated a March 2020 presidential decree banning the imposition of cotton production quotas and warned local authorities against the harvest mobilization of students, in particular. However, some local officials continued to mobilize adults and children into compulsory cotton picking to meet local harvest benchmarks established in direct violation of the decree. Labor inspectors identified cases in which local hokims directed banks to send their employees into the cotton fields or find and/or pay for replacements through unregulated, informal channels; as in previous years, this de facto penalty system generated a lucrative means of extortion for corrupt officials. NGOs continued to report that many of the voluntary pickers preferred to be hired as replacement pickers by those seeking to avoid the cotton fields, as this enabled them to earn income beyond the standard picking wages. Farmers who were unable to fulfill illegal quotas risked losing the rights to farm their government-leased land. Media reports indicated – and some government officials acknowledged – that ongoing development of the privatized cluster system inadvertently generated other vulnerabilities, including avenues for private businesses to subject harvest workers to contract violations, loss of bargaining power or choice of cluster-affiliation, coerced cultivation of cotton under threat of land loss, wage irregularities, and forced overtime. Some authorities reportedly expropriated land formerly leased or owned by individual farmers for the creation of new cluster sites without adequately compensating them, increasing their vulnerability to forced labor at those clusters. NGO observers noted the absence of a legal framework to ensure oversight of worker contracts and regulate and ensure proper licensing of labor recruitment intermediaries left seasonal agricultural workers vulnerable to forced labor in some cluster sites. The 2020 harvest marked the seventh 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 this prohibition; while there were isolated reports of children working in the fields—a trend that may have increased due to family-directed mobilization of children in response to pandemic-related school closures and economic hardships—there continued to be no reports of systemic mobilization. The government, in coordination with the ILO, continued to conduct awareness-raising campaigns to ensure citizens were aware of their labor rights.
For the sixth 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. For the first time, the government also issued official monitoring access permits to civil society groups. The ILO assessed that government entities compelled approximately 80,000 pickers out of an estimated two million-member workforce to work in the 2020 harvest—a significant decrease compared with 102,000 in 2019, 170,000 in 2018, and 336,000 in 2017. However, as was the case in previous years, in 2020 the annual rate in the reduction of forced laborers continued to slow. For the third year, authorities granted the ILO access to data acquired through the government’s Cotton Harvest Feedback Mechanism, which included dedicated telephone hotlines and messaging applications for reports of labor violations; this mechanism and Federation of Trade Unions system received a total of 970 complaints, including 180 complaints related to wage irregularities and inadequate working conditions and 790 explicit allegations of forced labor, during the cotton harvest season (compared with 1,563 in 2019). The government continued to increase the size of the labor inspectorate, bringing the total number of labor investigators assigned to look into these complaints across the country to 600 (compared with an increase to 400 in 2019). Inspectors reported these complaints resulted in the positive identification of 101 cases of adult forced labor in the cotton harvest, leading to fines for at least 170 officials—a decrease from 259 officials in 2019; fines totaled 653.2 million soum ($62,380) (550 million soum, or $52,520, in 2019). Six of these cases were sent to criminal courts for additional investigation for the first time. User assessments of the feedback mechanism were unavailable in 2020; in previous harvests, observers reported concerns about the effectiveness of the mechanism, the credibility and efficacy of ensuing investigations, and fear of retaliation for its use. For the third year, the government included independent human rights activists in harvest monitoring, field interviews, awareness raising activities, and the review of cases gathered through the mechanism. Observers reported isolated incidents in which local government officials harassed and temporarily detained independent civil society activists who attempted to monitor the cotton harvest, at times under the pretext of quarantine requirements. Media, including state media outlets, continued to report on forced labor practices, problems, and violations, generally without penalization or censorship; however, at least one high-profile blogger was subjected to politically motivated arrest, detention, and repeat criminal charges after attempting to report on farmers’ dissatisfaction with cluster model-related land management. As with service provision, delays in or refusal of NGO registration constrained some civil society efforts to monitor and assist the victims of forced labor in the cotton harvest. During the reporting period, local authorities reportedly harassed and threatened several activists in response to their efforts to establish Uzbekistan’s first independent labor union.
In a prior reporting period, the government encouraged Ministers to use a special fund under the Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations to recruit unemployed individuals for public works, instead of subjecting civil servants and students to forced labor therein. In 2020, the government allocated 262 billion soum ($25 million) to this fund (unreported in 2019; 714 billion in 2018), through which it successfully provided job opportunities to nearly half a million Uzbekistani nationals left suddenly unemployed by the pandemic, assuaging a significant economic driver of potential exploitation. Unlike in 2019, the Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations did not provide information on the amount of fines for labor violations it contributed to the fund (6.6 billion soum, or $630,260, in 2019). An NGO reported the central government continued to set silk cocoon production quotas, which may have incentivized government officials to coerce in-home silk production in some communities. 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 continued to provide support to labor migrants abroad, including victims of forced labor, and allocated a budget of 8.5 billion soum ($811,690); this significant decrease from 200 billion soum ($19.1 million) in 2019 was likely attributable to the pandemic-related decline in labor migration. Uzbekistan’s Agency for Foreign Labor Migration (the Agency) continued outreach to prospective labor migrants, serving to reduce potential risks of trafficking among this population. The Agency also conducted pre-departure consultations, through which it provided information on primary destination countries’ labor and migration laws – especially Russia and Kazakhstan; issued some prospective migrant workers health insurance; and provided micro-loans to those who could not find work abroad. The government also operated a 24-hour hotline in Russia that provided Uzbekistani labor migrants with legal advice, advised them of their rights, and directed them to the nearest consulate for assistance. The government maintained bilateral employment agreements outlining citizens’ labor rights with Japan, Poland, Russia, South Korea, and Turkey; during the reporting period, it signed a new agreement on migrant worker rights with Kazakhstan, negotiated improvements to the aforementioned agreement with Russia, and worked with Moscow municipal authorities to establish a migrant labor recruitment and training center in Tashkent. Private companies, including foreign and local, had official permission from the government to recruit Uzbekistani citizens for jobs abroad and within Uzbekistan. Although the companies were required to obtain recruitment licenses, the government did not report the number of such licenses granted. During the reporting period, the government banned the imposition of recruitment fees on workers seeking employment abroad, addressing a longstanding recommendation from international observers; however, it was unclear to what extent authorities enforced this ban.
The government’s expanded labor inspectorate reported conducting 16,671 inspections and investigations in 2020, although it did not specify how many were initiated by worker complaints (compared with 21,172 inspections and 8,322 complaint investigations in 2019). These inspections and investigations culminated in the identification of more than 15,000 employment law violations. As in previous years, the inspectorate did not report screening for trafficking indicators or referring any cases for criminal investigation as part of these inspections. Labor inspectors were not empowered to bring criminal charges for first time violations of the law against forced labor, and international observers noted some inspectors also demonstrated limited comfort with their administrative enforcement mandate. Authorities continued to conduct public awareness efforts on transnational sex and labor trafficking, including through events, print media, television, and radio, often in partnership with and in-kind support to NGOs. Authorities worked with a diaspora organization in Tashkent to secure citizenship documentation for over 150 previously stateless Uyghur residents. The government maintained a 24-hour hotline; in 2020 the line received 318 trafficking-related phone calls, from which 93 were identified as trafficking cases (422 and 75, respectively, in 2019). An NGO maintained a foreign donor-funded hotline. The government did not conduct efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts.