A report from the U.S. State Department called Trafficking in Persons (TIP) highlights Uzbekistan’s failure to address forced labor within the agricultural sector, according to The Diplomat. The Central Asian country made strides in reducing forced child labor, but has since used adults as a source of work fodder. Uzbekistan is the fifth-largest cotton exporter in the world.
Uzbekistan upgraded within the TIP list in 2015 as a sign of improvement, but has regressed alongside Turkmenistan. Many farmers are compelled to work in fields due to the government’s strict quotas and monopoly system, and critics argue that the entire sector is rooted in coercion.
Over two million people are forcibly placed in labor fields in the country, notes Transparency International. With that, Uzbek authorities are attempting to reduce the need for human capital and will implement more machines in the next few years.
Uzbekistan’s involvement in forced labor practices should come as no surprise when considering the authoritarian leanings of the government. President Islam Karimov has ruled the country since the 1990s and has done little in the way of fostering a free society for his people. Karimov, however, is trying to advance his country forward through closer trade ties with other countries, such as Pakistan, including closer relations with the West.
The problem is that Tashkent’s human rights abuses remain a turnoff to many investors and world leaders. For instance, many Western retailers refuse to purchase Uzbek cotton, and the government has earned a notorious reputation as a severe human rights violator. Additionally, some have called on the World Bank to suspend the funding of agriculture projects in Uzbekistan until forced labor is eradicated. Uzbekistan is also a prime destination for sex trafficking.
Uzbekistan’s willingness to work with the international community is a step forward, but the state faces an uphill battle over its blatant disregard of basic freedoms. Uzbekistan is known for torture, unlawful detention of political dissidents, and restrictions on religious liberty.
A particularly noteworthy incident occurred in 2015, when Uzbek soldiers fired on a large group of protesters, killing hundreds in the process. The event became known as the Andijan massacre. Despite the country’s abhorrent human rights past, powers, such as the United States, remain interested in an alliance with Karimov’s administration.
The urge to strengthen relations with the Uzbeks stems from the U.S. fight against terrorism, and nations, such as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, are on the front lines when it comes to keeping terrorist incursions at bay, especially as jihadist fighters in Afghanistan launch attacks in the region.
Further, Western powers are concerned about the economic welfare of the region as nations struggle to remain afloat in a tougher world economy, and Uzbekistan has come to rely on coerced labor as a crutch. The nation’s economic output primarily derives from natural resources, with little room for diversification or innovative strategies that would foster growth.
Moreover, Central Asia contends with the ISIS onslaught, especially as the organization makes headway into different parts of the region. Terrorism is one of many factors that hamper further investment in Central Asia, which is crucial to the development of Uzbekistan’s economy.