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GENEVA – The International Labour Organisation has called for the international community to support Uzbekistan in its reform agenda – despite its own research finding that forced labour still exists in the country’s cotton fields. The ILO’s latest dispatch from Uzbekistan claims most forced labour has been eliminated from its cotton fields with 93 per cent of those involved in the 2018 harvest working voluntarily. However, that still leaves 7 per cent who, in theory, fell into the forced labour category. The ILO itself points out: “… some pickers from state institutions, enterprises and agencies reported that they would have preferred not to have participated in the harvest but did not want trouble from their employer.”

The cotton harvest in Uzbekistan is the world’s largest recruitment operation, with 2.6 million people temporarily picking cotton every year. The land allocated for cotton growing has been reduced but the crop still provides an important source of income, especially for women in rural areas.

The ILO has been monitoring the cotton harvest for child labour since 2013, through an agreement with the Uzbek government, employers and trade unions. In 2015, as part of an agreement with the World Bank, it began monitoring the use of forced and child labour during the harvest.

Beate Andrees, chief of the ILO’s Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work Branch, appeared surprisingly keen to encourage support for Uzbekistan despite the fact that, until very recently, children, as well as doctors, teachers and other public sector employees were being told to pick cotton against their will.

Andrees said: “We have seen in many places that international garment companies can play a key role in promoting good labour standards by insisting on high standards and by implementing international best practices. There is no reason why this should not take place in Uzbekistan as well.

“There is still work to do but Uzbekistan has demonstrated that it deserves full support from the international community, including governments, investors, the garment and textile industry, and civil society in realising the next phase of its ambitious reform agenda. The ILO stands ready to facilitate this process.”

There are several things to note here. Firstly, a huge majority of apparel brands are still boycotting Uzbek cotton having signed a pledge on the issue several years ago. Secondly, as recently as September this year, the Uzbek-German Forum, a Cotton Campaign member, suggested “serious systemic issues” remain in Uzbekistan’s cotton-picking sector, with farmers required to produce cotton by the state, often at a loss, and facing, “crippling penalties if they don’t meet their quotas.

This brings us to the third point which is that long-awaited and much-needed change has only started happening very recently in Uzbekistan – and there is still a long way to go. The idea that the country “deserves full support from the international community,” suggests the ILO may well be jumping the gun on this issue.

One swallow does not a summer make.

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