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Cotton Campaign: The goal is to end forced labor in Uzbekistan

Cotton Campaign and Forced Labor in Uzbekistan - Interview with VOA Uzbek
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Cotton Campaign and Forced Labor in Uzbekistan - Interview with VOA Uzbek

What is Cotton Campaign and why is it focusing on Uzbekistan? Matthew Fischer-Daly, who coordinates this international coalition, talked to Navbahor Imamova, Voice of America's Uzbek Service.

Cotton Campaign/Forced Labor in Uzbekistan - VOA Uzbek Interview
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Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Matt, thank you so much for joining us on the Voice of America.

Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign: You're welcome. It’s great to be here.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: The movement you coordinate has a very interesting name. It is basically what the Uzbek cotton-picking season is called in Uzbekistan, the Cotton Campaign. Who are you and what do you do?

Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign: Thank you, it's great to be here with the Voice of America. The Cotton Campaign is a global coalition of human rights, non-governmental organizations, trade unions, business associations and socially responsible investors. We work together against forced labor in the cotton sector. We've started with Uzbekistan because the forced labor in Uzbekistan is state-orchestrated. It's the largest state orchestrated forced labor system of cotton production in the world.

We have started to also advocate for the end of the forced labor system in Turkmenistan, a neighbor to Uzbekistan. Precisely because it is very similar to the forced labor system in Uzbekistan… We recognize that there are serious concerns about forced labor and other labor abuses in other cotton production locations.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So, this is basically an international movement, with its current focus being on Uzbekistan?

Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign: That's correct, with the most egregious, largest-scale, state-led forced labor being in the cotton sectors of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: When was it started and who financially supports you?

Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign: We have been around for quite a long time in various formations. So, going back as far as 1990’s many of our Uzbek partners were already reporting on forced labor and of course other human rights concerns in Uzbekistan. It was in early 2000’s that international actors started to pay attention. The International Trade Union Confederation and international organization of employers which represent workers and employers to the ILO, the International Labor Organization started to raise complaints at the ILO. That was as far back as 2005.

In 2007 and 2008 is when a broader multi-stakeholder and global coalition came together. When investors recognized that this is a major risk in terms of business liability and brand reputation, and many companies also recognized those risks. They started to get more and more involved as well. That's when the Cotton Campaign in its present form first came together. The financial backing has come from several areas. There are about a dozen organizations that make up the steering committee of the Cotton Campaign. Only a few of those receive funding directly for our advocacy and monitoring, reporting in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Organizations like Open Society Foundation and the National Endowment for Democracy are some of those who support us financially, but the other two-thirds of the most active members of the Cotton Campaign dedicate their own budgets. We're talking about organizations like the AFL-CIO or like the Retail Council of Canada, or like Mercy Investment Services, which are organizations that have an entirely different financial structure, do not get grants for this work but see it as part of their core business to ensure that their own operations as companies or their members who are companies or the companies they invest in are ensuring that their supply chains are free of forced labor cotton.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You mentioned your local partners. How much support do you have on the ground that is Uzbekistan? Are we talking about activists and human rights organizations or do you also feel like there’s some kind of business support that you have?

Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign: Well, it is difficult to gauge any broad opinion in Uzbekistan. That has been a challenge from the start. There is no freedom of expression recognized by the Uzbekistan government. Therefore it's difficult to conduct mass surveys and things of that nature. We work with a lot of citizens who are activists, and bravely take it upon themselves to go out and document human rights abuses and report out on those.

Over the years we've worked with them to provide them additional skills and knowledge of international conventions as well as brought them together with Uzbek lawyers to really get a firm grasp of national laws as well. They really base all of their documentation on the national law of Uzbekistan to be able to say, “Under our own law we do not allow forced labor.” Therefore, citizens do have the right to say, “No. I do not have to do this work.”

In terms of business support in Uzbekistan, it is highly likely that a lot of businesses would see our messaging and say, “Yes, we agree with that” because of what we call for: we want farmers, who at the end of the day are small businessmen and women, to have the ability to earn sufficient income cultivating their crops. That allows them to hire voluntary labor, invest in their farms both in terms of using new equipment as well as agricultural practices that can sustain farming over a long period of time.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: When you are speaking against forced labor in Uzbekistan, do feel like you're speaking on behalf of Uzbek farmers or whoever would support your movement?

Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign: Absolutely.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: There has been a lot of criticism. Obviously, you have very harsh critics out there, not just within the Uzbekistan government, but other governments too, who work with the Uzbek regime. And as far as the Uzbek government is concerned, you are paid agitators, so you’re the front for the business lobby. You are not interested in constructive engagement. You want to protest and to scream but you’re not necessarily interested in real solutions. How do you respond to that kind of criticism?

Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign: We’re well aware... First of all, I think it's important to look at all of our messaging. We are very open and transparent about everything we do. All the publications we very put out on our website. We circulate them broadly to both folks who agree with our positions and those who do not. We base all of our information directly on evidence that our partners on the ground gather. The type of evidence they gather are documented orders from government officials ordering the mobilization of people to work in the cotton fields; documents that indicate that students and public sector workers are required to participate under threats of being expelled from school or losing their jobs. So that's the essence of forced labor.

We're very clear that what is being done is a violation not only of international conventions but Uzbek law. We're also very clear that the farmers are not benefiting from the system. The finances are structured in a manner that the income from cotton disappears. We would like to see the Uzbek parliament have access to the expenditures and income in the cotton sector, but they don't. It disappears into a fund in the finance ministry that is called the SelKhoz Fund.

The information that we have is very highly documented. The violations are very clear in terms of the evidence. It’s hard not to laugh when we hear the criticism that we represent some kind of a lobby group for industry. Number one, the Uzbek cotton industry and the U.S. cotton industry have nothing to do with each other on a competitive basis. We have no ties with the U.S. cotton industry. When we have our engagement with companies, what we’re engaging the companies on is doing their proper human rights due diligence to ensure that there's no forced labor in their supply chains.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: The businesses that are joining your movement, are you saying that they are predominantly interested because of the violations of human rights in Uzbekistan and that they are afraid that they may be using cotton that is picked through forced labor? Is that the concern that they have or …?

Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign: Of course I can't speak for each company themselves, but our message to companies is that it is unacceptable for you to sell a product to consumers that you know has forced labor in its production. In order to avoid that you need to proactively look at your supply chain including asking whether your cotton coming from Uzbekistan. Currently all the cotton coming from Uzbekistan is made of forced labor. Our message to companies is that this is a duty that you have, there's a responsibility you have. If you're going to have a global supply chain you need to have control over that.

The motivation for companies is their investors. Investors don't want to see companies using forced labor products. U.S. law prohibits the importation of goods produced through forced labor even if they are not entirely produced through forced labor. For example, if a t-shirt has forced labor cotton in it coming into the United States that risks a violation of U.S. law.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: This is what you call The Pledge, which has been going on right now, right? Over 175 apparel brands and clothing lines have signed this pledge.

Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign: Absolutely, that's right. All of these are apparel brands that we all recognize through the names that we see in retail stores around the world. We need to send a public message to the Uzbek government because at the end of the day we're talking about a policy. All of these brands have signed a pledge to avoid cotton from Uzbekistan, so long as the Uzbek government continues to use forced labor. Why does that matter? It seems like it would take more than a message from companies to the Uzbek government. That's true but we have seen the results of pressure both from industry and from the diplomatic community around the world have an effect on decision-making in Tashkent.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: I want to get to that but before that I want to know how you are assessing this season. The Uzbek government is very happy. The state plan has been achieved. The country has produced over three and half million tons of cotton. Hundreds of deals have already been signed to export a lot of it. So Tashkent is fine despite the pressure that you're putting on it. The Uzbek cotton is in demand.

Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign: Yes, it is. It’s very disappointing to see this year's cotton production cycle. This is so similar to every year in the history of Uzbekistan. Once again …

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: No improvement?

Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign: We've not seen any change in the forced labor system. We've seen …

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Less forced labor?

Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign: No less forced labor. We’ve seen precisely the same process of the government imposing quotas on farmers under threat of taking away their land. We also saw in the summer several farmers' crops were destroyed because local authorities decided that this was supposed to have been cotton. We saw a farmer in July take his own life after he was very harshly treated by local officials for not meeting his quota. We've seen that dynamic between the government and farmers continue in which farmers are coerced to produce the quota for the government cotton industry under threat of penalty. That has continued all through the spring, and we saw the government forcibly mobilize thousands of citizens to weed the cotton fields starting in the second week of September.

The harvest really took off, and we saw the same type of mobilization with the use of coercion that we've seen every year in the history of Uzbekistan with this government. Now we’re very disappointed to see that despite commitments by the government to International Labor Organization, to the World Bank, to diplomatic partners, that it has not changed its forced system whatsoever.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Do you consider the International Labor Organization a partner?

Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign: We do, we think …

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Are you in touch with them, what kind of monitoring have they done this year?

Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign: We are in-touch with the ILO and we do think they have a very significant and vital role to play in Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan is a member of the ILO. The ILO’s members include governments and representatives of workers and representatives of employers. Therefore, we've always encouraged the government to invite the ILO to have unfettered access to assess the situation. It has been difficult because the government has wanted to control the relationship, so we saw for the first time the ILO monitored only child labor in 2013, so a couple years ago under very limited …

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: They did not do any kind of monitoring last year.

Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign: No, they did not and that was because there was no agreement from the Uzbek government side last year to say yes, we will accept monitoring of forced labor. This year they did accept monitoring of forced labor led by the ILO with teams that include representatives of the Labor Ministry as well as the Uzbek trade union federation and the Uzbek Chamber of Commerce. We think that, that can be helpful.

We have been working with our monitoring team who are all independent of the government to provide information on almost a daily basis to the ILO to make sure that they're seeing everything. Our concern is that the government is putting a lot of pressure on the ILO to under-report forced labor and to claim that a lot of people are out there working in the field voluntarily, when in fact what we see is that a lot of people are forced to go work under threats of various penalties. I mentioned expulsion for students or being fired for public sector workers.

There are also pensioners and mothers who receive social welfare benefits who are threatened by the neighborhood committees, the Mahallas, that their welfare benefits can be cut if they don't go and pick cotton. In turn, we see a lot of these people. If I were a doctor in Uzbekistan and my chief doctor says to me, “you need to go pick cotton for two weeks,” I may say, “well, I have sufficient money to hire somebody so I'm going to go hire somebody who's in this village and perhaps doesn't have a job.” A parenthesis Uzbekistan has a major unemployment and underemployment problem.

There are people who are looking for work. I go and hire somebody and then if monitors from the ILO lead monitoring teams come out and say investigate, they may hear from the person I hired, “yeah, I'm not here voluntarily working for a salary except for the fact that the salary is being paid by me, the doctor who was forced by my employer to contribute.” So citizens are in turn financing the government's cotton sector. And we see the same coercion is there. That's what we're trying to get rid of.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Seeing all that, that complex, corrupt environment, one may wonder why a bunch of foreign human rights organizations and companies care so much about such a local issue, that when you look at the society, they may not be caring as much about. They seem to be fine, and there were many Uzbek’s who argue with the movements like you, saying that you don't really need to do this. Because it's our problem. We need to resolve it. Guess what, it's not necessarily a problem. We're fine with it. This has been a way of life for Uzbekistan for a long time. Especially, when people who are working for you are also being targeted by the national security services. We know of so many stories where their lives have come under threat.

Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign: Absolutely, and I think that is precisely the role of this…

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Is this all worth it?

Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign: Absolutely, that is precisely the role of a globalized solidarity movement. In Uzbekistan, the government has used fear so effectively for literally generations. That it is smart for an Uzbek citizen to say, “I don't care about this. I am perfectly fine with this.” Even though if you or I were sitting in Uzbekistan, and I am not able to make any income on my farm because the government sets a price below my production costs.

My neighbors are forced to come work on my farm even though I don't actually want them there. I don't think most citizens in Uzbekistan fail to see the problems here. They don't fail to see that their local officials are imposing obligations of work on them under threats of penalty. They don't fail to see that they're being demanded to pay bribes through an extortion scheme in order to avoid work that has nothing to do with their professional aspirations as nurses, as teachers, or as police officers for that matter.

I think this is a very universal human issue and that's precisely why the prohibition of forced labor is a universally held norm that very few countries in the world would argue that it's actually a good thing. In fact, the Uzbek government has ratified all the Forced Labor conventions that state “No, we agree with the international community that coercion is not the appropriate recruitment means.”

What does it mean for Uzbek citizens? It means having socio-economic development that would contribute to communities. It would mean ten years from now that the agricultural sector in Uzbekistan is supporting the agricultural communities of Uzbekistan. Those farming families are earning income able to hire people and are contributing to more employment in the country and to more national income at the end of the day. That would benefit the vast majority of the thirty million people in Uzbekistan. It would stop benefiting this small clique of government elite that are currently benefiting from the current system.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Have you ever interacted with the Uzbek government? Have you ever held conversation with them? I'm not talking about negotiations, just a dialogue. Have you been able to start anything that we can call a dialogue?

Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign: We have reached out repeatedly and continuously over the years to the Uzbek government. In 2011 was the last time that the then ambassador of Uzbekistan to the United States met with several organizations involved in the Cotton Campaign. Since then they have refused to meet with us, and we’re very clear that we will continue to report the use of forced labor by the Uzbekistan government as long as it occurs and we are continuously identifying what is next.

What are the solutions to this? We have consistently repeated recommendations both to the Uzbek government itself in written form. To all the international and bilateral partners that work with the Uzbek government we have stated that there are very clear things that the government can do to promote the transition I was talking about before. Going from a forced labor system to a voluntary labor system that really would support the stated goals of the Uzbek government, to have a strong economy, to have a developing population. They could do things right now like increase the price that they pay to farmers for the cotton, and stop the use of coercion against farmers who don't meet their quotas, and allow farmers to have access to not just the current monopoly of input providers but a broader array of providers, suppliers of agricultural inputs, and have access to markets to sell their cotton.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: What you are saying seems so impossible. If it ever happens it would be a miraculous development… To really go from what you have now in Uzbekistan to something that you are recommending. You have been critical of the World Bank projects that focus on the agricultural sector in Uzbekistan. When you talk about solutions, a lot of experts say well, the Uzbek agricultural system needs to be mechanized, so that the government doesn't use forced labor to pick cotton which is white gold, which is the main national product. Why are you opposing those projects?

Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign: Because it puts the cart before the horse. What we've been saying to the World Bank all along is, you have unique leverage with Uzbek government. You have the ability to finance significant reforms. If you give the finance before there's real commitment to those reforms thenyou're not going to achieve those goals.

The World Bank I think at this point understands very clearly that the things that need reform are really the financial infrastructure of the agricultural sector. Tractors and mechanization of harvesting are really a side issue. It's a tool, it’s like any other tool it depends on the farmers ability to have access to that, and that means financially accessing those tools and being able to use i. Even if the farmer's has an ability to use those tools and can harvest his entire crop with the tractor but is still getting a price that's below the production cost, then he’s still in debt.

He's still indebted to the government for that quota. So what we have been encouraging the World Bank to do is to use its financial economic expertise and have a very serious discussion with Uzbek government about reforming the banking and financial infrastructure underlying the agricultural sector.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You’re talking about huge, deeply fundamental reforms that have to deal with the economic freedom and the way the whole society and the system functions. Do you think that the World Bank would be willing to take on such a huge undertaking?

Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign: I think that is its job. The World Bank doesn't exist to just push out loans; its mission is ending poverty. If you want to end poverty in a sector like the agricultural system in Uzbekistan you have to look at the root causes. They sound large and significant but what we're talking about is shifting the distribution of resources. This is a major economic sector for Uzbekistan but right now it's only benefiting a small sector of the elite. We're talking about the reality that the intervention of the World Bank as it currently stands isn't challenging the Uzbekistan government to be a real partner.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: In many ways you are asking them to lead these reforms where they can easily say “well, the government has to meet us half-way.” We’re only going to be able to accomplish anything if the government is willing to do that and if there is enough political will on the ground.

Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign: Absolutely, and at the end of the day this is a political will question. The question is how far is the government willing to go to shift its practices in order to contribute more to the population--the general population, as opposed to maintaining the system which only benefits a small sector of the population.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You have a very difficult task… The American Uzbek Chamber of Commerce just held its annual business form here in Washington, to obviously attract more investment from this country. What would you say to these companies who’re already working or potential investors, if they came to you I guess asking for your insights and advice?

Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign: What we do say to the members of the American Uzbek Chamber of Commerce, is that Uzbekistan right now is an environment that presents high risks of human rights violations to any company investing in there.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So, don't invest there?

Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign: Well, if you're going to invest there, many of these companies already are I mean we're talking about General Motors, by some estimates has 90% of the car market.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: It’s a success story.

Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign: It is there, and it is in partnership with the Uzbek government for two major facilities in Uzbekistan. What we say is that do your work there. We're not asking you to leave today but we are asking you to fulfill your responsibilities as a global company. That means knowing the risks of contributing to human rights abuses by your operations, your business partners, and mitigating those risks. If you really can't mitigate the risks, if you really do identify that your operations are contributing to human rights violations, and you can't do anything to mitigate that, then yeah, you ought to divest.

What could a company like General Motors or General Electric or some of the other AUCC members do? Well, number one they could publicly commit to not contribute either personnel or financially or in-kind to the cotton harvest so long as there's forced labor. They could also be very clear with the Uzbek government that they are aware of some of the reported bribery schemes that have other multinational companies have been involved with such as TeliaSonera and they could report back to their own home country governments if they have any situations like that right.

I think companies from multinational companies working in Uzbekistan have an obligation to be highly transparent, and involve independent monitoring of their operations so that their home country governments can really have a view of, are they doing everything they can do to avoid entanglement with some of the human rights concerns in Uzbekistan?

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Rosenblum, speaking at this business forum on Monday did mention the problem of forced labor in Uzbekistan. We know that you constantly communicate your concerns to the U.S. government. Do you feel like you're getting enough support? Do you feel you are in sync with the thinking and with the official position of the U.S. government when it comes to this issue?

Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign: We do communicate a lot. I don't think we are in sync, but I do think we share some of the same goals. We have different roles to play, we as the civil society coalition. It is our role to identify significant abuses and it is that role to advocate to the U.S. government to use its relationship to advance human rights goals. It is also the U.S. government's responsibility to ensure that U.S. businesses are respecting human rights and their operations abroad, and to do everything that the U.S. government can do to make sure that happens.

I think the U.S. government can do more. It can be much more up front with U.S. companies about the risks in Uzbekistan. It could work with those companies that are operating in Uzbekistan to carry a message to the Uzbek government that the investment environment here needs to change, needs to be more stable, and that there ought not be demands on multinational companies to contribute to the cotton harvest for example.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Do you agree with those U.S. officials who think that the Uzbek economy needs to be diversified? That’s one way to resolve this issue… They say we should really encourage more businesses to invest in Uzbekistan and diversify the economy so that the system is less dependent on cotton.

Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign: I think it's not as related as it seems. I think the issue that we have honed in on and we think is a number one issue is forced labor, use of coercion to motivate people to work. The Uzbek government today or tomorrow could decide to stop using coercion as its means of recruiting people to work. In terms of the economic development of the country …

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: It’s a just a question of political will?

Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign: It is. Diversity in the economy can have a tremendous amount of returns for other reasons but many of our partners in Uzbekistan have reported forced labor in the silk sector, in the wheat sector, and use of coercion to require public sector workers to do maintenance of city streets. That is the issue that we're concerned about because that's the human rights violation. I think there are plenty of experts out there that can speak to the pros and cons of diversifying the makeup of the Uzbek economy but I think the gains to be heard from removing coercion from the agricultural sector are tremendous. That would be one of the most significant moments in the history of Uzbekistan for the government to stop its use the forced labor.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: What is success for you?

Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign: Success is demonstrated commitment by Uzbek government to stop forced labor. When I say demonstrated that means, we need to see that it is halting officials from coercing people to work.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: The end of child labor - that was success?

Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign: It was partial success.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: How about the ILO now being on the ground in Uzbekistan, working there?

Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign: I say partial success because right now during the harvest we've seen forced child labor because they've not changed the forced labor system. Right, so long as from the prime minister down to the district level hokimof that district is getting orders that this harvest cotton quota needs to be met or else people are going to lose their jobs;so long as that is the practice, with theuse of threats to get people to meet the national production target for cotton, we're going to see forced child labor.

That's why I say it was a great, welcome, wonderful step to see well over a million children no longer forcibly mobilized for the cotton fields nationwide in 2014. This year as well, but we still continue to see local officials force children out in to the fields when they get anxious that they're not going to meet their current quota.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Now, you have a higher number of adults…

Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign: Exactly, and higher number of adults. Is it also success for the ILO to be there? It depends. It is the ILO’s job to engage governments when governments are not applying international labor organization conventions. The Uzbek government is not applying ILO conventions 29 and 105. The success comes when there are results. The ILO faces a significant challenge in Uzbekistan. We continue to provide it as much information as we can. So that its intervention can be in a success.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Thank you so much.

Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign: You’re very welcome.

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