The government maintained prevention efforts. The government’s National Commission on Trafficking in Persons and Forced Labor (the Commission) coordinated anti-trafficking efforts with the Chair of the Senate serving as the National Rapporteur. The Commission convened four meetings in 2021, which included participation from government agencies, regional government representatives, and civil society. The Commission directed the activities of regional commissions in 12 regions, one autonomous republic, and one independent city (Tashkent). 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 reportedly updated its national action plan to reflect input from international stakeholders in 2021 but did not provide information on these updates.
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 unemployed individuals continued to significantly reduce the incidence of forced labor in the 2021 harvest. According to the ILO, reports of forced labor in cotton picking decreased by 75 percent in 2021 (compared with 33 percent in 2020). Monitors noted signs of coercion in only 1 percent of cotton pickers interviewed (compared with 4 percent in 2020 and 6 percent in 2019). Representatives from the ILO and civil society reported only a small number of scattered instances of forced labor persisted in the annual cotton harvest. 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 2021, the government reported increasing the total number of private textile-cotton clusters to 124—28 more than the previous year—accounting for nearly 100 percent of arable production land (an increase from 90 percent in 2020). The clusters processed cotton from cultivation to finished textile products and paid higher wages to workers.
While most observers assessed the government had made significant strides in combating forced labor in the cotton sector, including by abolishing the national cotton quota in 2020, experts noted the incentive structures that supported government-led coercion in the past remained, functioning much like the former quota system as mahallas (neighborhood-level governments) still recruited cotton pickers, whose benefits they control, to meet the local government targets in direct violation of the decree. Mahallas sometimes resorted to coercive practices to recruit pickers due to shortages in some regions or at some stages of the harvest. International experts reported the limited cases of forced labor involved perceived threats rather than explicit coercion; there is an expectation and belief that refusal results in negative consequences, such as losing a job or benefits, particularly among health care workers, teachers, employees of state-owned enterprises, and local government staff, as well as individuals who receive public benefits. Employees of public institution have reportedly been forced to pay for replacement pickers if they refused to participate in the harvest in the past. NGOs have reported in the past 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. Civil society experts noted continuous involvement of government officials in the organization of the harvest can lead to the use of coercion due to the disparate power balance from a reliance on mahalla to recruit pickers and a lack of independent recruitment systems. Civil society experts have reported clusters do not typically face any penalties from local officials when they violate contract obligations with farmers—such as delay of payments for cotton delivered. Hokims have reportedly forced farmers to sign contracts with the clusters in their districts. Media and civil society reports indicated 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 cluster sites. 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 government continued its commitment to prohibit child labor in the cotton harvest; while there were isolated reports of children working in the fields—these appeared to have involved children trying to earn extra money for their families—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. Hokims were instructed by the Deputy Prime Minister not to use forced labor to pick cotton.
For the seventh 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 government continued to issue official monitoring access permits to civil society groups. The ILO assessed that government entities compelled 1 percent of the estimated two million pickers who participated in the 2021 harvest—or approximately 20,000 individuals. This figure compares with 80,000 in 2020, 102,000 in 2019, 170,000 in 2018, and 336,000 in 2017. The government maintained the size of the labor inspectorate, keeping the total number of labor investigators assigned to look into these complaints across the country to 600. The labor inspectorate investigated 128 allegations of forced labor violations during the 2021 cotton harvest and conducted monitoring of more than 13,419 farms and privatized cotton clusters. User assessments of the Cotton Harvest Feedback Mechanism in 2021 were not yet available by the end of the reporting period; 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 fourth 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 previously reported isolated incidents in which local government officials harassed and temporarily detained independent civil society activists who attempted to monitor the cotton harvest. Media, including state media outlets, continued to report on forced labor practices and violations, generally without penalization or censorship; however, at least one high-profile blogger was subjected to politically motivated arrest and sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison after reporting on issues such as corruption and farmers’ rights. In 2021, local authorities reportedly harassed and threatened several activists in response to their efforts to establish Uzbekistan’s first independent labor union. Some civil society experts noted a lack of freedom of association for independent monitoring and reporting of labor rights violations.
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. Over the past five years, 1.4 million people have benefitted from 1.3 trillion soum ($120.3 million) from the Community Works Fund, serving to curtail economic drivers of potential exploitation; 243.3 billion soum ($22.52 million) was allocated in 2021, compared with 479.6 billion soum ($44.38 million) in 2020. An NGO previously reported the central government continued to set silk cocoon production quotas. NGO accounts of forced labor in the silk cocoon harvest alleged direct local government involvement and that some silk cocoon clusters forced farmers to sign compulsory contracts, requiring them to provide a specific amount of silk cocoons for every hectare of land—farmers who failed to produce the required quota risked the expropriation of their land by the local government. In 2021, the government, in cooperation with an international organization, carried out a survey of the silk cocoon industry and reported no systemic forced labor and no children in the production of silkworms.
The government continued to provide support to labor migrants abroad, including victims of forced labor, and allocated a budget of 15.5 billion soum ($1.43 million), an increase from 9.1 billion soum ($842,150) in 2020. Uzbekistan’s Agency for External Labor Migration provided legal, financial, and social assistance to 323,620 labor migrants overseas; the agency also provided entrepreneurship and/or vocational training to 23,878 returned labor migrants. The agency conducted pre-departure consultations with migrant workers, through which it provided information on primary destination countries’ labor and immigration laws—especially Russia and Kazakhstan; issued some prospective migrant workers health insurance; and provided micro- loans to cover basic expenses such as transportation and insurance. The government operated a hotline to identify human trafficking victims and refer them to services—the hotline received 840 calls in 2021, and 195 led to criminal investigations; the government did not provide information about the number of victims who received assistance as a result of hotline calls. The Commission also maintained a website where victims could request assistance. The government 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. An NGO operated a widely publicized 24/7 hotline, which received 12,082 calls on trafficking in 2021—the NGO provided assistance to 2,652 individuals. Additionally, the government, in cooperation with an NGO, provided information and support for labor migrants on safe work abroad and their rights. The government maintained agreements to enhance coordination on labor migration with eight countries, including the four with the highest populations of Uzbekistani labor migrants: Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkey, and South Korea. 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. Labor recruitment laws in Uzbekistan prohibit charging workers recruitment fees; however, it was unclear to what extent authorities enforced this ban.
The government’s labor inspectorate reported conducting 27,471 inspections in 2021 in all sectors of the economy, not counting those for farmers and clusters, (compared with 19,226 in 2020), and it collected 24 billion soum ($2.22 million) in fines (11.6 billion soum [$1.07 million] in 2020) and contributed the amount to the Community Works Fund. As in previous years, the inspectorate did not report screening for trafficking indicators. 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 through in-kind support to NGOs. The government supported public awareness activities on the trafficking risk in the hotel industry and trafficking awareness raising campaigns for migrants departing airports. The government did not conduct efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts. The government reported providing anti-trafficking training for its diplomatic personnel, as they are authorized to identify and refer trafficking victims in their host countries.