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GENEVA – Child labour is no longer being used in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields, claims a new report, potentially reopening the Central Asian state as a source of cotton for apparel brands and retailers.

A new International Labour Organisation report to the World Bank found the use of child labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest has “come to an end,” while concrete measures to stop the use of forced labour have been taken.

Child and forced labour had hitherto been rife in Uzbekistan, with teachers and other professionals regularly pulled from their normal workplace to work in the fields alongside children during the cotton harvest. Many leading apparel brands have stopped sourcing cotton their in protest, including M&S and H&M.

The ILO report Third-party monitoring of measures against child labour and forced labour during the 2017 cotton harvest in Uzbekistan is based on more than 3,000 unaccompanied and unannounced interviews with a representative sample of the country’s 2.6 million cotton pickers.

Said Beate Andrees, chief of the ILO’s Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work Branch: “The 2017 cotton harvest took place in the context of increased transparency and dialogue. This has encompassed all groups of civil society, including critical voices of individual activists. This is an encouraging sign for the future. However, there is still a lag between the sheer amount of new decrees and reforms being issued by the central government and the capacity to absorb and implement these changes at provincial and district levels,”

The ILO has been monitoring the cotton harvest for child labour since 2013. In 2015, it began monitoring the harvest for forced labour and child labour as part of an agreement with the World Bank.

Instructions have been given by the Uzbek national authorities to local administrations to ensure that all recruitment of cotton pickers is on a voluntary basis. In September 2017, an order was given withdrawing certain risk groups (students, education and medical personnel) from the harvest at its early stage.

Moreover, cotton pickers’ wages have been increased in line with recommendations by the ILO and the World Bank. The ILO recommends that the government continues to increase wages and also addresses working conditions more broadly to further attract voluntary pickers.

Last September, Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev spoke before the United Nations General Assembly in New York where he pledged to end forced labour in his country and underscored his government’s engagement with the ILO. In November 2017, at the Global Conference on the Sustained Eradication of Child Labour in Argentina, Uzbekistan also pledged to engage with independent civil society groups on the issue.

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