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Uzbekistan to Allow Cotton Harvest Monitoring

TASHKENT, Sep 17 2013 (IPS) - (EurasiaNet) – Giving in to sustained international pressure, authoritarian Uzbekistan is opening up its cotton fields to international monitors this fall. The International Labour Organisation has confirmed to EurasiaNet.org that it is sending a mission to monitor the Uzbek cotton harvest, which starts in mid-September.

“The ILO will be involved in the monitoring of the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan with the aim of preventing the use of child labour,” spokesman Hans von Rohland confirmed by email on Sep. 12. Monitoring will start “in the next few days”.

Uzbekistan has been the target in recent years of international criticism and a widespread commercial boycott over its reliance on child and forced labour to reap the cash crop. Earlier this year, the U.S. State Department assailed Uzbekistan on the forced labour issue.

The surprise news that an observer mission is being allowed into Uzbekistan – which has always denied the use of systematic state-sponsored child and forced labour, but resisted years of pressure to invite monitors in – has received a cautious welcome from watchdog groups. Nevertheless, labour rights advocates are concerned that the ILO’s mandate will not go far enough to stamp out abuses in the cotton fields.

“We are pleased that this year the International Labour Organization expects to deploy teams to Uzbekistan to monitor during the harvest,” the Cotton Campaign, a coalition lobbying for improved standards in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry, said on Sep. 9.

“We remain concerned that the ILO monitors will be accompanied by representatives of the Government of Uzbekistan and the official state union and employers’ organizations, whose presence will have a chilling effect on Uzbek citizens’ willingness to speak openly with the ILO monitors,” the Cotton Campaign statement added.

Von Rohland, the ILO spokesman, confirmed that the mission “involves cooperation with the Uzbek authorities who have the mandate to deal with child labour issues, as well as with experts from employers’ organisations and trade unions.”

Uzbek participants will receive ILO training aimed at “ensuring that the monitoring is credible and reliable,” the representative added. One goal “is increasing awareness and building up the capacity of national actors to ensure the full respect of the provisions of ratified Conventions.”

Uzbekistan has ratified two ILO conventions on child labour, but human rights activists say Tashkent routinely flouts them. Campaigners are concerned that the observers will not gain unfettered access to the cotton fields. “It is essential that monitoring teams be comprised only of independent observers and not include any Uzbek officials,” Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch, told EurasiaNet.org.

Access without minders is essential to allow labourers to speak freely, he said, since “the Uzbek government has a well-documented record of suppressing all forms of dissent.” Activists are also concerned that the ILO’s remit covers child labour, but not forced labour, although Uzbekistan has signed ILO forced labour conventions which would provide a legal basis to monitor it.

“The mission’s mandate should explicitly include forced labour as the entire system of the cotton harvest as it affects millions of Uzbeks rests on a state-sponsored system of coercion,” Swerdlow said. The ILO representative countered that “the monitoring will look at child labour, including forced child labour, and important aspects of forced labour are bound to come up.” The Cotton Campaign has already documented cases of forced labour during harvest preparations.

“During the spring 2013, Government authorities mobilized children and adults to plough and weed, and authorities beat farmers for planting onions instead of cotton,” it reported. In summer it documented “preparations to coercively mobilize nurses, teachers and other public sector workers to harvest cotton.”

Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest rests on forced labour to help farmers meet government-set quotas to pick the crop. Forced labourers can buy their way out: The going rate this year is 400,000 sums (200 dollars at the official exchange rate, or five times the minimum wage), according to the Uzmetronom.com website. Cotton pickers are paid a pittance: the rate was 150-200 sums (7-10 cents) per kilo last year, Uzmetronom said.

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