Uzbekistan's government wants the international community to believe that its high school and college students are willing participants in the nation's massive and compulsory annual cotton harvest — and has apparently strong-armed them into signing "voluntary" contracts to prove it.
The Central Asian state is the world's fifth-largest cotton exporter. Its government enlists more than a million of its people to pick cotton for little or no compensation during each harvest season, then buys the crop at below market rates and exports it for a huge windfall. Over the years, human rights campaigners have increasingly pressured the Uzbek government to abandon the exploitation of forced labor, especially the mobilization of children to help fulfill regional cotton quotas.
Contracts obtained by the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of groups advocating against cotton slavery in Uzbekistan, show that the government is coercing students to sign statements saying that they agree to either participate in the harvest, which runs from September to mid-November each year, or face expulsion. The documents, which the campaign received directly from students on Monday and shared with VICE News (see below), are not isolated records. Activists say that officials routinely use this tactic to force a range of public and private workers, from doctors and nurses to teachers and even soldiers, to work the cotton fields in the fall.
"We've seen a lot of these contracts," said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher and former Uzbekistan bureau chief for Human Rights Watch (HRW), which is involved in the Cotton Campaign. "Sometimes they are in the form of pledges stating that this individual is working voluntarily, but that's a fiction because local officials — not just police officers, but neighborhood councils appointed by the state — go door-to-door and force many adults through so-called voluntary contracts into the field."
"It's a form of modern slavery," he added.
Those who are unable to work because of age or injury are reportedly required to hire a substitute worker and pay them an average of $7.66 to $11.49 per day. To put this into perspective, the average wage of a local kindergarten teacher is about $77 to $153 a month, one Uzbek told the BBC.
Matthew Fischer-Daly, coordinator of the Cotton Campaign, said that various institutions are "told to contribute to the harvest, or else… whether its contributing employees to pick cotton, contributing financial payments, or shutting down businesses — even wedding venues — so that you don't interfere with people going to work in the fields."
Some of these take the form of local officials selling exemptions to residents who pay a fee to avoid picking cotton.
"It's a racket. It's extortion," Fischer-Daly remarked. "It's part of the corruption that plagues Uzbekistan, certainly related and embedded in the cotton sector. When you look at the cotton sector, it's not a rational system of production. It exists because it serves as a patronage system, which means government officials benefit from it. The farmers and the people do not."
The semi-feudal custom of sending people to till the land dates to the Soviet era. Now farmers technically have their own property, but the state tells them what to grow and can force them from the land if they fail to produce enough to meet the government's demand.
"Uzbekistan is a unique case in the world where the government is the trafficker," said Swerdlow. "It's not smugglers or mafia types or criminal elements that are doing this. It's the government in a very centralized fashion sending millions to the fields."
In the last three years, an intensive human rights advocacy campaign has led the state to dramatically decrease its child labor force, which often included students as young as seven. But that doesn't mean that younger Uzbek students are left unaffected.
"The use of schools by the government for purposes other than education continues to be a serious problem," Fischer-Daly said. "Even those children who stayed in schools in Uzbekistan this year, many of them are not receiving an education because their teachers have been sent out to pick cotton."
Similar forced labor practices have also been employed in Turkmenistan, which ranks seventh among global cotton exporters. Fischer-Daly said that his campaign had notified roughly a dozen companies, including the clothing companies H&M and Inditex, which owns the Spanish retail chain Zara, that one of the apparel manufacturers it does business with routinely engages in forced cotton labor practices similar to the system in Uzbekistan. He added that after one of the companies raised concerns with the manufacturer, Turkmenbashi Jeans Complex — which is owned partially by the Turkmen government — Turkmen officials responded with an invitation for its representatives to visit the factory.
"I think it is telling that the government responded to a concern from a multinational company asking them about forced labor at a clothing factory," Fischer-Daly said. "Other brands also need to communicate to the Turkmen and Uzbek governments that in order for their cotton to be used in global markets, they need to stop using forced labor."
When contacted by VICE News, H&M denied that it had any direct business relationship with Turkmenbashi Jeans Complex and said that it was investigating whether "any H&M supplier is linked to the sub-contractor in question or cotton from a banned region."
"H&M does not accept forced labor in our supply chain nor cotton from Uzbekistan in our products," the company said in a statement. "In early 2013 we reinforced our ban on Uzbek cotton by requiring all suppliers to sign a mandatory commitment to neither directly or indirectly source any such cotton as a requirement to remain our supplier."
Inditex did not immediately respond to requests by VICE News for comment on Tuesday.
Activists are also calling on other international institutions to pressure the Uzbek government to end its forced labor practices, including the World Bank, which Swerdlow noted is in a unique position to do so.
"The World Bank has greenlighted hundreds of millions of dollars of investment that they had previously frozen for years on the pretext that Uzbekistan has changed or bettered its behavior," he said. "Cotton is the cash crop, one of the main sources of revenue that perpetuates the dictatorship in countries."
But the World Bank's internal watchdog said in February that it would not investigate links between its loans to the Uzbek government and incidences of reported forced labor in World Bank project zones, which a formal complaint filed by a Uzbek citizen first brought to light.
"Where the World Bank has extra teeth is precisely in economic and financial systems underlying the cotton sector, which is the root cause of forced labor," said Fischer-Daly. "It's aware of the problem and we hope it is starting to address the financial root causes of rights violations."
The World Bank also did not immediately respond to VICE News on Tuesday.
HRW also highlighted the increasing issue of state-sanctioned violence and threats being made toward activists or journalists covering forced cotton labor in the country. In June, the group released a report on Elena Urlaeva, an Uzbek activist who was interrogated for 18 hours and subjected to vaginal and anal searches by police because of her work on forced labor. Swerdlow said that Urlaeva was detained again several months later by a police officer who broke her arm.
Several other instances of abuse have also been reported by people independently monitoring the cotton harvest, according to Swerdlow, including one individual in the country's far northwest who claimed that officials had threatened him with up to 20 years in prison on terrorism charges if he proceeded with his research and activism.
"Almost every human rights defender that we work with inside Uzbekistan at some point or another is threatened," Swerdlow said. "We have typical old-style Soviet practices being used in Uzbekistan. [Terror charges] are a very convenient, very vague, and overly broad statute that Uzbek officials and the president in particular have been using for the last 20 years as way of silencing and driving fear into the minds of activists."
Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields