For the 2012 harvest, the Uzbek government forced over a million of its own citizens, children and adults – including its teachers, doctors, and nurses – to harvest cotton in abusive conditions on threat of punishment, Human Rights Watch found. The authorities harassed local activists and journalists who tried to report on the issue. In 2011, Uzbekistan was the world’s fifth largest exporter of cotton.
“The issue here is forced labor, plain and simple” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Forcing older children and adults to work in the cotton fields to replace some younger children, does not change the fact that Uzbekistan is forcing a million of its people to labor in these fields involuntarily every year at harvest season.”
It is widely acknowledged that the Uzbek government has long relied on forced labor, including of children as young as nine, to pick cotton produced for export. In 2012, the burden was shifted somewhat to older children and adults, according to cotton workers, independent activists, and local rights groups across Uzbekistan who spoke with Human Rights Watch.
Uzbek authorities refused to allow international monitors into the country for the fourth year in a row, and arrested and intimidated local activists and independent journalists who attempted to report on the forced labor situation. The Uzbek authorities should stop using forced labor and stop harassing journalists and advocates who report about it.
The United States and the European Union, key allies of Uzbekistan and important markets for its cotton, should publicly condemn the coercive forced labor system used to produce cotton in Uzbekistan. These allies should press the Uzbek government to end the practice and to permit monitoring by the International Labor Organization (ILO) during the 2013 harvest.
Although international nongovernmental organizations and foreign media outlets are prevented from operating in Uzbekistan, Human Rights Watch received consistent, credible reports from cotton workers, individual activists, and local rights groups that the authorities used the forced labor of children and adults in the 2012 harvest.
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