Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: It's wonderful to be here. I never imagined some few years ago that I will be in Tashkent and discussing the relationship between the International Labor Organization and the government of Uzbekistan and very interestingly, some few years ago, the international community, including some top humanoids organizations, were lobbying to let you work here, to find a way for the ILO to work closely with the government of Uzbekistan. How did that happen?
Jonas Astrup, ILO: How did it happen? First of all, you're right. These are very interesting times in Uzbekistan and things that we didn't think would be possible just a year ago or two years ago, today are perfectly normal and so, there's a lot of very positive things happening. Uzbekistan has been a member of the ILO for 26 years, and our work on the cotton harvest began in 2013 where we looked at primarily child labor in the cotton harvest.
In 2015, we expanded our focus on the cotton harvest to also include forced labor and so the project that I'm responsible for, the ILO third party monitoring project was initiated and we did our first monitoring to also look at forced labor primarily in the context of the World Bank project sites, but we've always conducted monitoring nationwide in all provinces and in all districts.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You seem to have the closest relationship now with Uzbekistan government. You're a major player here in Tashkent. And I'm actually complimenting you because many international organizations, we have to openly recognize the fact that they have struggled to find a common language with Uzbek government to communicate with this system and you seem to have found that golden mean. The Uzbek government speaks very highly of you, they trust you. They are relying heavily on you as we approach this new cotton season. They're completely counting on your support, but as far as I know, this is not an unconditional support.
Jonas Astrup, ILO: No. Well, I think you're right. First of all, it's important to understand who the ILO is. We are little different from other UN agencies in that we work through our tripartite constituents. We do work with governments, but we also work with employers and worker organizations, trade unions. So, we work through a tripartite structure, so other UN agencies are closer to perhaps the government alone, but in the ILO we have a tripartite structure.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So, in any country the government is not a sole ally?
Jonas Astrup, ILO: Exactly, this is the thing. We always worked through a tripartite structure.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: How independently can you operate like that?
There is no attempt to influence or how can you say, control the monitoring process of the cotton harvest harvests. We can talk more about exactly what that means, but I think it's also important to stress that we do monitoring of the cotton harvest, but we also do a lot of training and capacity building, pre-harvest, part of which I think you're familiar with the training of journalists this year.
Jonas Astrup, ILO: I am happy to say and I think this is an important topic, we have complete independence and nobody is trying to restrict our operations on the ground here in Uzbekistan. There is no attempt to influence or how can you say, control the monitoring process of the cotton harvest harvests. We can talk more about exactly what that means, but I think it's also important to stress that we do monitoring of the cotton harvest, but we also do a lot of training and capacity building, pre-harvest, part of which I think you're familiar with the training of journalists this year. We've also trained public prosecutors and the Ministry of the Interior and human rights activists and we have trained people involved in the recruitment for the cotton harvest.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Is training a part of your regular work? Do you do this in other countries too or this is something specific for Uzbekistan?
Jonas Astrup, ILO: Yes, yes. I think this is something we do worldwide, we can take some of the best practices and apply them here in Uzbekistan. I think, quite frankly that Uzbekistan is turning out to be a bit of a path finder in the ILO system because many of these learnings that we've seen in Uzbekistan, I believe can be applied in other countries where you have similar issues.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: The government of Uzbekistan has always argued that the problem of forced labor in this country, which is something that they failed to recognize for a long time, of course, the existence of forced labor, they have always argued that this is such a unique case, we are such a special case that treat us differently, don't judge us based on those regular international standards. Is this such a unique situation?
Jonas Astrup, ILO: First of all, let me pick up on what you said, I think today we're in a situation where we have very straightforward conversations with the government and with everybody else in Uzbekistan. Nobody is trying to talk down the fact that there is a forced labor issue and this is what we're working together to eradicate. I think what may or may not have happened in the past, has certainly changed into the situation today where we have completely open conversations about this.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So, the old arguments are not valid anymore?
Jonas Astrup, ILO: Well, I don't know what do you mean by the old argument...
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: That we're a very special like, don't judge us based on the international experience, the relationship between cotton and people of Uzbekistan...
Jonas Astrup, ILO: What you see, the issue of involuntary or forced labor can take many different shapes and forms in different countries. So for example, ILO is also working in Thailand on issues related to the fishery, a project where you have people working in forced labor, trapped in forced labor situation on fishing vessels and they can be out at sea for quite extended periods of time, that is a different situation than picking cotton for four to six weeks doing the cotton harvest here in Uzbekistan.
There are also different recruitment mechanisms and some of it involves migrant labor and some of it does it here Uzbekistan, there's no migrant labor workers coming into the country to pick cotton. You have different flavors. You have different types of forced labor. The principles are the same. If you pick against your will and if you feel or if you believe that there would be some negative consequences, if you decline an invitation to pick, then it's forced labor and it's really not very complicated.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Do you confidently see that you and Uzbek government are on the same page in terms of understanding what is forced labor?
This year we will be conducting some 11000 interviews. Last year we conducted 4000 interviews, so we'll be doing even more this year.
Jonas Astrup, ILO: The conversations we have had since the 2017 harvest and going into 2018, yes I can say it'll be a completely on the same page. We do not have any misunderstandings about what the ILO convention say, what Uzbek laws and regulations say and where the issues are, absolutely. We have full transparency and full cooperation from the Uzbek government.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Who are some of your closest partners now that are nongovernmental organizations in the country?
Jonas Astrup, ILO: This is a good question. We traditionally, as I said, we would work through government structure like for example, the Ministry of Labor. We would also work through trade unions, so the Federation of Trade Unions and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry representing the employers. What we are also doing in Uzbekistan is that we have other key partners such as civil society. We work very closely with independent civil society activists. We work very closely with journalists from various types of media and we work very closely with other types of civil society registered organizations. So, we have a broader spectrum than just the tripartite.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: What would you say to those who are basically criticizing you for selecting certain groups only to partner with? How do you choose your partners? Do you go to them based work or is this obviously it's a two way street, they have to be willing to work with you too but what is the process like? How transparent is that process?
Jonas Astrup, ILO: Well, look, we are very transparent in terms of who we work with. Obviously, when it comes to dealing with the cotton harvest, if there are some players you have to deal with ...
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: People are very emotional.
Jonas Astrup, ILO: They are emotional, yes but just to give you an idea, this year we will be doing monitoring jointly with human rights activist, independent, unregistered human rights activists who form part of some of these international network that are also interested in this area. We will be doing monitoring with these people. We have very open to cooperation and by no means want to be selective in who we're dealing with.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And when it comes to the processing of all that information that gets collected, how is that process like? Do you do that together with them or do you then take everybody's input and analyze it yourself?
Jonas Astrup, ILO: That's a very good question. Thanks for asking. Let me explain to you how we gather our data... Let's use the 2018 harvest as an example. This year we will be conducting some 11000 interviews. Last year we conducted 4000 interviews, so we'll be doing even more this year.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Almost three times more.
Jonas Astrup, ILO: Almost three times more.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And this is across the country.
Jonas Astrup, ILO: This is across the country in all provinces in all districts.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: At the same time?
Nobody knows where we are going to do these interviews. So, the interviews are unannounced and unaccompanied completely.
Jonas Astrup, ILO: During the harvest. Actually this year we are also looking at the cotton weeding season, which takes place in May, June, and so that's included this year in the monitoring. The harvest itself runs September, October into November and during that phase, we are also conducting these interviews. We conduct many different types of interviews. We do field interviews, face to face in the cotton fields by international ILO experts that we fly into the country. This year we're going to be doing these interviews jointly with local human rights activists and of course the Federation of Trade Unions, who by the way recused themselves completely from the interview process. There is no interference. Nobody knows where we are going to do these interviews. So, the interviews are unannounced and unaccompanied completely.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And the government is okay with that?
Jonas Astrup, ILO: Absolutely.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Including the Ministry of Labor?
Jonas Astrup, ILO: Including the Ministry of Labor and beyond. Yes, we have full support and I think this is important, there's no attempt to hide anything. Certainty, we saw this beginning of 2017, there was an openness and it followed the president's speech at the United Nations General Assembly where he very openly talked about these issues and in 2018, I think we have reached the stage now where we have no attempt to interfere with the process.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You have some harsh critics... Some of them are your partners too, for example, the Cotton Campaign. You consider them a partner, right?
Jonas Astrup, ILO: Absolutely. Of course, yes.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: We have had many conversations with them over the last year. Their delegation visited was Uzbekistan last May. They had a good visit. They tell us but they're not rushing to a paint such a positive picture of the environment here. They think that to conclude that the forced labor is resolved or on the way to be resolved, would be too much. They say that they need to see more proof, they need to see more results, and they also feel like the government, the system is not in sync in its approach to the issue.
I think it's important to realize that everybody has a right to be interested in these issues and that includes the Cotton Campaign.
Jonas Astrup, ILO: But it's not for me to speak on behalf of the Cotton campaign or speculate about why they may have certain perspectives on things. But yes, we do consider the Cotton campaign a partner. I think it's important to realize that everybody has a right to be interested in these issues and that includes the Cotton campaign. It includes activists and citizens of Uzbekistan. It includes organizations and everybody has a right to be interested in labor issues. There's no monopoly for the ILO to work on these issues. So yes, we do consider.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And you have encouraged the Uzbek government to work with them, right?
Jonas Astrup, ILO: Of course. Well, look we encourage an open process and involving people and work together to solve this issue. This is a complex issue that requires everybody to work together, which is also why this here, when we conducted international training on investigation techniques, we didn't just train government officials, we trained journalists, from independent media in Uzbekistan on investigative methods.
We trained human rights activists. We trained people from the Ministry of the Interior, Labor inspectors, people from the trade unions and the Chamber of Commerce. So we brought everybody together. We took them to Italy, provided training for them, and then we replicated the training here back in Uzbekistan. This is an issue which you can't monitor your way out of. Monitoring is not a solution, monitoring it's simply a tool. So, when we come to building that capacity, we need to really work quite broadly.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: But your reports based on that monitoring plays a huge role in terms of the policy making here. You get quoted a lot by Uzbek government and they claim that based on your monitoring, the issue is no longer there.
Jonas Astrup, ILO: I must disagree. I don't think anybody is saying this is no longer an issue, quite the contrary. Everybody is now realizing that there is an issue and this is something that will take, but it's not for me to speculate about how long time it would take, but it's clear that there's no easy fix for this issue. The government, if you follow the Uzbek media is very open about that this is not just confined to the cotton harvest. There are, of course, issues with street sweeping and other things.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: There is not much discussion about the details of your report. You reported last year of thousands of cases of violations, big and small, in different parts of the country and some of them were tackled and some of them need to be tackled. You don't really hear that discussion in the local media. They pick points where the issue is recognized, the government wants to resolve this issue, government wants to work both with the international community and local NGOs to overcome this fundamental agricultural issue for the country. So, a lot of the criticism stems from the fact that the Uzbeks are really picking sort of things about the report that they like.
Jonas Astrup, ILO: I think everybody can take certain things from reports and use it.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Use the facts they want to use, yes.
Jonas Astrup, ILO: To enforce a certain perspective. I do think about, if you look at what we saw in 2017 is that we saw an increase in critical reporting coming out of certain news organizations in Uzbekistan, some of which are independent.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: That's true.
Jonas Astrup, ILO: Yes.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: New media have started reporting on.
Jonas Astrup, ILO: They started reporting in 2017 and that prompted our approach to actually trained journalists this year and as you know, we trained 500 journalists across the country and we also trained the communications officials from some of the government institutions who need to be communicating with journalists.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So, this year is going to be a very challenging time for everyone, including journalists and others, challenging in a sense that we need to see the results of all these attempts and programs.
... we believe that having that independent investigative reporting is important. That's why we're launching this process.
Jonas Astrup, ILO: Yes, challenging but also exciting and important. This year we are launching an award process where we will be recognizing the news organization or journalists that does the best reporting on forced labor in the cotton harvest and the fact that we are doing this, I think speaks to the changes that we're seeing for the media. We will be recognizing and we will have a ceremony at the end of the harvest where we will recognize the journalists and news organizations that do the best reporting and this is important for two reasons: one is to raise awareness of the average citizen of Uzbekistan, what are your rights, and the second one is of course, to play the role as a watchdog. That's the role of the media. And so, we believe that having that independent investigative reporting is important. That's why we're launching this process.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And I'm sure you have seen the recommendations from the Cotton campaign following their visit. They are one of the major players as you know, and the campaign has been effective internationally, speaking, what did you think? Do you do think that those recommendations are doable or acceptable or realistic enough?
Jonas Astrup, ILO: Well, it's not for me to ...
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: As a partner…
I do think that it is important to not just write the recommendations down on a piece of paper. That's easy. Actually working on the ground and working on implementation and making that change real is where the challenge lies.
Jonas Astrup, ILO: In general, I think many of the recommendations make sense. I do think that it is important to not just write the recommendations down on a piece of paper. That's easy. Actually working on the ground and working on implementation and making that change real is where the challenge lies. So, I think that's important. There has to be a follow-up in terms of working underground in the country to actually change people's thinking, change people's behavior and change the systems.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And you have also argued including on social media by the way that pressure doesn't work. The kind of pressure or the kind of lecturing perhaps from the outside in some ways.
Jonas Astrup, ILO: I said pressure doesn't work, but I think there's a time and a place for the pressure and there's a time and a place for working to build capacity and to actually support. I think what we're seeing is a shift in terms of openness and commitment from the Uzbek government starting at the very top. We're having a very different conversation and we're having openness about this is an issue and we want to address it, we want to work together to eradicate it. In a situation like that, my opinion is that you don't need to keep the same level of pressure when you're having these very open discussions rather you need to support that and you need to help to build that capacity.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Also I was a part of some of the trainings and those sessions were really very impressive and you had a lot of young people involved in the process and it was really interesting to see people wearing those t-shirts and caps that say "My labor is not forced"... And I believe that these boxes (pointing to the back) have those t-shirts and caps. So, should we prepare ourselves to see more of those?
Jonas Astrup, ILO: Yes. I do apologize for this...
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: It's okay.
Jonas Astrup, ILO: This are 20,000 caps with these logos.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: For the season.
Jonas Astrup, ILO: Your words, your choice, it's about voluntary labor, you have a right in Uzbek and these were going to distribute out across the country to people in the fields. It serves two purposes. You get the message out there in the fields and secondly, the caps we provide shade for people when they're out in the sun.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And it's in white.
Jonas Astrup, ILO: And it's in white, so it keeps people hopefully a bit cooler. So yes, that's right. That's just a small part of the awareness raising campaign. I liked what you said about indeed you were part of the training of these journalists and so was Human Rights Watch, we were openly with human rights on a number of issues and I think it very, very good to see Human Rights Watch active on the ground in Uzbekistan, having an impact. So, we are happy with collaboration.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So, you'll be willing to continue doing projects with Human Rights Watch and if the Cotton Campaigns wants to come and do something together, you're open for that?
Jonas Astrup, ILO: We're open to working with anybody who is willing to work with us and we've done it in the past as you say and it has worked very well and it's been welcomed by the government and by stakeholders in Uzbekistan. So, yes, that's definitely something we are open to.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: The child labor issue. You concluded, I think two years ago, if I'm not mistaken, that, that is no longer such a huge fundamental problem that the child labor has been tackled with to a great extent.
You do not see mass mobilization of schoolchildren picking cotton. That's a thing of the past. It does not happen today. Of course, as in any agricultural setting, anywhere in the world, you do have isolated cases of underage workers but it's not to an extent that is any more significant than it is in most other countries.
Jonas Astrup, ILO: Thank you for raising this point. I think it's important to be very specific here, systematic child labor in the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan is no longer an issue. You do not see mass mobilization of schoolchildren picking cotton. That's a thing of the past. It does not happen today. Of course, as in any agricultural setting, anywhere in the world, you do have isolated cases of underage workers but it's not to an extent that is any more significant than it is in most other countries. And of course agriculture is a high risk sector, especially in these peak situations of the harvest.
So just to be clear, we believe and we firmly believe that there is no systematic child labor in the Uzbek cotton harvest. There are isolated cases and we found some during our monitoring, but what we also saw was a systematic follow up to those cases to immediately make sure that the situation is rectified, the child is looked after, it's investigated what happened and make sure it doesn't happen again. I think it's time to move on from that conversation, not to forget about child labor anywhere in the world is a big issue, but it's not a systematic part of the cotton harvest.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: We know that people do get paid for picking cotton and that pick system is expected to widen just here. How much are people going to make per kilo?
Jonas Astrup, ILO: So this is exactly what we saw in 2016 people were paid 280 Soms per kilo in 2017. That went up to 450 Som per kilo in the first pass, so in the first round of picking. We have received information that this year it's going to go up to the reading of 650 to 700 Som per kilo for the first pass. So you can see ...
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Under $0.10.
Jonas Astrup, ILO: I think it's important to put this into perspective. I think it would not be fair to simply translate that into dollars and then put it into an American context or a European context for that matter.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: A loaf of bread, let's say. A kilo will get a loaf of bread.
Jonas Astrup, ILO: Exactly. To put things into perspective a ...
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: But that rate is not decided in cooperation with you, right?
Jonas Astrup, ILO: No, we are not in the business of setting that.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Who comes up with that?
Jonas Astrup, ILO: This is the government sets the rate.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: The Ministry of Finance?
Jonas Astrup, ILO: The Ministry of Finance I believe... Obviously, there are many different impacts in calculations there's also the price that the farmer has paid for, the raw cotton, etc, etc.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Would you interfere if you thought that, that's too low?
Jonas Astrup, ILO: We can't interfere and is not our role to interfere and to tell ... We would have a view if we felt that it came below, say the minimum wage levels that set of standard, but as a matter of fact, a reasonably productive cotton picker can pick and earn in the region of what say, a nurse or a school teacher earns. So, it's for women in the rural areas, this is actually quite an opportunity to earn a cash income.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Seasonal work.
... a reasonably productive cotton picker can pick and earn in the region of what say, a nurse or a school teacher earns.
Jonas Astrup, ILO: Seasonal work and that is exactly what we find that the vast majority of the cotton pickers are voluntary and the majority of the voluntary pickers are women from the rural areas who have an opportunity once in a year basically to earn cash. So that's part of the explanation and it's not insignificant what these women who are often highly productive can earn. It may not seem like a lot if you translate it and put it into an American context, but in Uzbekistan this will go a long way to provide for school equipment, for food, for products to support the family.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: There are obviously other kinds of forced labor in the country. You're focused, you're preoccupied with the cotton sector, but are there any other force labor related issues that also bothered you in Uzbekistan that you need to be attention?
Jonas Astrup, ILO: Well, I think it's very clear from the conversations in the public statements from the president and the prime minister and everybody in the central government, yes there are issues primarily staff from state budget organizations being involved in things like street sweeping and cleaning and so on and so forth, and there's been some statements made not only by the president but also from everybody in the central government. The clear policy message is this is unacceptable. It is not a permitted and it's unacceptable to engage people in any form of forced labor. I would argue that there is a systematic effort to implement and enforce that across the country. You may still see cases but the government policy is crystal clear.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: We hear from the government that executing the policy, executing the decrees is very slow. The process is very slow. We heard President Mirziyoyev on the eve of the Independence Day and he said "we have to deliver." President says that the system must deliver to the people of Uzbekistan. What would be your advice in this process of reforms to achieve things, to get to the results faster?
Jonas Astrup, ILO: Well, look, I think that it's good that the president is keeping the pressure on and expressing the need for further work. I think that's very positive, first of all. I think that also shows you the degree of openness and frankness.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Realistic approach.
... the president is keeping the pressure on and expressing the need for further work.
Jonas Astrup, ILO: Realistic approach. Look, I think you have to start with political commitment. It's clear that there's political commitment to eradicate these issues, the forced labor issues in Uzbekistan, there's no doubt about it. Then you need to have the regulatory framework in place. Uzbekistan has the regulatory framework in place. It was because on is ratified all the 14 ILO core conventions. Core conventions in Uzbekistan has implemented these conventions into laws and even the constitution.
I think in terms of the regulatory framework that's in place. Then you need the capacity to actually enforce these rules. And we are working very closely with the Labor inspectorate, with the prosecutor's office and with independent Woodstock's us as journalists and human rights activist to begin to really make sure that these laws and regulations are enforced and there are consequences when people don't follow them.
But I think more importantly, not more importantly, but it's also important to keep in mind that making people change the way things are done takes time and we know it from ourselves, is really changing behavior in a profound way takes time and it's not something that you just flick a switch and then everybody starts doing things differently, there needs to be a process of bringing people along, there needs to be a process of a capacity building, of training, of education to make sure that people understand the bigger picture and understand why it's important to change behavior.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Which ministries do you work with? Because to actually tackle an issue like this, you have to be so well-connected with so many parts of the system, not just the Ministry of Labor, but Ministry of Justice and Internal affair affairs.
Jonas Astrup, ILO: Internal affairs.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Ministries of economy, agriculture…
Jonas Astrup, ILO: Agriculture, even the Ministry of Education and Health, of course. Yes, you're right. So it's important of course, to engage many different types of ministries and governmental bodies and nongovernmental institutions as well and we do that. So, in Uzbekistan there is a coordination council on forced and child labor to eradicate forced and child labor. That coordinating council that is chaired by the deputy prime minister Narbayeva, who I believe you interviewed the last year and I'm so it's chaired by the deputy prime minister. It has representatives from all organizations that are involved in the cotton harvest in the cotton production, including all the ministries we just talked about. It also has a new thing and this is really very positive, it now also has representation from civil society and we're talking about independent non-registered human rights activists who were part of the process.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: The critical side.
... the government has been very open, very willing to work with everybody because at the end of the day we share the same goal - we want to eradicate forced and child labor.
Jonas Astrup, ILO: The critical side and we have been able to facilitate this process and the government has been very open, very willing to work with everybody because at the end of the day we share the same goal, we want to eradicate forced and child labor. So, these people, the critical voices have been allowed and are formally part of the coordination council. They are able to follow the process, make interventions, ask questions, and really be part of the process. So, I think this is important. This is an open, inclusive process.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So, you don't feel challenged in let's say, in maintaining communication with all these different parties?
Jonas Astrup, ILO: I know, we don't actually. Obviously we meet people very frequently and we have these coordinating council meetings where we have the formal process in addition to that, of course we speak on a daily basis with everybody who is concerned about these issues. We don't feel any difficulties in communicating and we don't feel any restrictions either. We are completely free to talk to everybody we want to talk to.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: I see that you don't have a big office here and your staff is also quite small, do you have people working with you in the regions?
... we fly in 12 to 14 ILO experts into the country for the harvest to do the monitoring.
Jonas Astrup, ILO: Yes, we do. So, you're right, the project that we will, of course ILO as an organization has a lot of expertise that we can tap into in Geneva, in Moscow, in other parts of the world. We have experts on forced labor, on child labor on all these issues, so we can tap into this network of experts. So, because this is a seasonal effort, we fly in 12 to 14 ILO experts into the country for the harvest to do the monitoring. And likewise when we do the training and the capacity building, we fly people in the regions. We have networks of course from various types of organizations, we have consultants we work with, we work with a lot of people.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And you make sure that your experts, obviously foreign experts, international experts are free enough or comfortable enough to work in these very local environment here?
Jonas Astrup, ILO: Yes.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Because from the other side, in the eyes of the locals, foreigners are coming, having a limited conversation with us, some translations and the feeling is that they usually get to hear the good stuff that communication is limited, interviews can be prepped. So, you don't really get to see your story.
Jonas Astrup, ILO: Look, I understand that view and I think it's important for total stress that we don't rely alone on flying foreign experts and we have many, many different ways of tapping into people's opinions. We do follow social media, we do telephone calls, we do focus groups, we do all these 11,000 interviews conducted in very many different ways and means. We have open trainings. We trained 7,000 people this year across every single province in every single district of the country.
We conducted training sessions where people could come and participate and ask questions and be part of the training. So, we understand that you need local expertise, you need local knowledge and so we're very sensitive to that. I think that's also why at the end of the day it's about building capacity of local journalists, of the Labor Inspectorate, of the trade unions after employers. Everybody needs to be part of it is not something that you can fly experts in, it's a temporary measure and simply one that's we mainly use for the capacity building, pre-harvest and the monitoring during the harvest.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: How long have you been here? When did you start it this assignment?
We trained 7,000 people this year across every single province in every single district of the country.
Jonas Astrup, ILO: We've been within these issues 2013. The project here started in 2015 and I've been here for the last one and a half year.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And how much did you know about Uzbekistan before starting on this job?
Jonas Astrup, ILO: I think I was probably ... I knew some things, but I think I was probably very typical in that not many people in the world fully understand Uzbekistan and I'm sure you are facing this on a daily basis yourself and I think there is ...
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Many Uzbeks don't understand Uzbekistan.
I am optimistic and I am fascinated by the change process of this country.
Jonas Astrup, ILO: Maybe so, but I think for us who are lucky enough and privileged enough to be able to work here doing this fascinating time and historic years of the country, we have an obligation, I believe, to talk openly internationally to share information and to be very open about what we are witnessing because we are in a very unique position.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So, you arrived in 2015 when the approach was perhaps at the early stages of changing towards the problem. So you've seen the evolution, right?
Jonas Astrup, ILO: Yes.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Is that why you are so optimistic? Because you have said fascinating. Not many people use the word fascinating in the international community. They are intrigued. They are excited to see some really unexpected changes. They get excited when they hear interesting things from the mouth of the president of Uzbekistan. We follow your social media posts. You tweet on a regular basis, and you spread the message of optimism.
Jonas Astrup, ILO: Well, maybe I do, but I am optimistic and I am fascinated by the change process of this country.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: But you are not naive.
We have seen a reduction of cotton production, especially targeting the low yield areas with lower population densities. All the policies, everything we have seen is in line with our recommendations. So, why would I not be optimistic?
Jonas Astrup, ILO: No, I don't think I am but in our area of work, we have not seen a wrong move in the last one and a half year, we have seen the wages go up. We have seen now a ban on recruiting staff from state budget organizations. No more recruitment of teachers, nurses, doctors, etc. We have seen a reduction of cotton production, especially targeting the low yield areas with lower population densities. All the policies, everything we have seen is in line with our recommendations. So why would I not be optimistic?
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: I'm sure there had been moments when you hear something that makes you a bit uncomfortable, from the officials here in this country. Have you been such incidents where you are like, "What are you saying? That's not really in line with what we want to do?" I the reform isn't smooth obviously and the way the process is explained here by the policy makers, by the decision makers, including president, isn't always very crystal clear. There's a lot of vagueness in messaging.
Jonas Astrup, ILO: Well, that's true for politics anyone who want, isn't it? But I think, perhaps and to answer your question, to get to the to your point, I think for us who work in the country on a daily basis and have these conversations with the policymakers directly, I think, we get an insight into what is going on and how genuine this reform process really is.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And how it is being framed?!
Jonas Astrup, ILO: Exactly, and I think maybe that's part of why I am optimistic and I'm not afraid to say that because we see so many things so close that I appreciate. If you're not in the country, you're outside, you may not get the same insights. So policymakers internationally rely on the information that we and others convey to them.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: I was interviewing a young journalist yesterday who is one of the founders of this new media sources in the country, and when I asked him about what makes him feel so optimistic, he gave a very interesting answer. Very similar to yours actually. He said that "you know, we are in the inside and as insiders what we see are mostly what's moving us forward." So, he said "it's good for us to hear your criticism from the outside because you obviously see more, but if you've always been an insider," he says, "I've always lived in the country and for me it's just moving forward and there are more options and there's more to do, there are more challenges and that's what makes me feel so optimistic." So, just like him, you obviously appreciate the outside view.
... we can really see how that is followed up by genuine implementation and the directions are taken through the government structures.
Jonas Astrup, ILO: I do appreciate the the outside view. I think it's legit and it's valid. Perception is reality. And so totally we listen and we hear people expressing concern and doubts but I must say that to echo what this journalist told you, the statements made by, for example, the president or other senior government officials, we can really see how that is followed up by genuine implementation and the directions are taken through the government structures. Of course, and this is where we are now, when we get out to the provinces, to the districts, that's where the work is now. The work for us it's not in Tashkent, the work for us is out in the provinces, in the districts. That's where the implementation is happening right now.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Well, good luck and thank you!
Jonas Astrup, ILO: Thank you?
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: That's was a wonderful conversation, I really appreciate your time.
Jonas Astrup, ILO: You're welcome. Thank you for the opportunity.