UZBEKISTAN: TIER 2 WATCH LIST
The Government of Uzbekistan does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so. These efforts included steps to address the use of forced adult labor during the annual cotton harvest through increasing remuneration to those picking cotton and improving working conditions to attract voluntary workers. The government ceased the systemic mobilization of students, teachers, and health care workers during the 2019 harvest. The government continued to allow unimpeded access to international third-party monitors, who assessed a continued overall decrease in the number of Uzbek citizens forced to pick cotton, and incorporated independent human rights activists into monitoring plans. The government also committed to eliminate cotton picking quotas—a contributing factor to forced labor—beginning in the fall 2020 harvest. The government created a high-level National Commission on Trafficking, including all relevant state agencies, as well as regional commissions, chaired by the regional governor, in every area of the country. However, the government did not demonstrate overall increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period. There were continued reports of corrupt officials requiring public sector employees to pick cotton or pay for a replacement worker, creating a penalty for not participating in the cotton harvest and a lucrative means of extortion for these officials. The government investigated and prosecuted fewer suspected traffickers for the sixth consecutive year. Authorities identified fewer victims of trafficking and did not identify any foreign victims. Less than one third of all convictions carried a prison sentence. The government has not reported criminal proceedings against officials for compelling people to participate in cotton cultivation and harvesting. Because the government has devoted sufficient resources to a written plan that, if implemented, would constitute significant efforts to meet the minimum standards, Uzbekistan was granted a waiver per the Trafficking Victims Protection Act from an otherwise required downgrade to Tier 3. Therefore Uzbekistan remained on Tier 2 Watch List for the third consecutive year.
Continue substantive action to end all government-compelled forced labor and hold complicit officials accountable. • Continue efforts to ensure all citizens are aware of their “right to refuse” participation in the cotton harvest or other work outside their professional duties and the requirement to pay for replacement workers without suffering consequences. • Respecting due process, increase investigations and, when sufficient evidence exists, criminally prosecute persons complicit in human trafficking, including officials involved in mobilizing forced labor. • Continue granting independent observers full access to monitor cotton cultivation and fully cease harassment, detention, and abuse of activists for documenting labor conditions; investigate and, when sufficient evidence exists, criminally prosecute persons complicit in human trafficking identified by observers. • Implement procedures for identifying trafficking victims to ensure they are systematic and proactive, including those developed with international partners. • Continue training law enforcement officials on proper handling of trafficking cases. • Train all first responders to officially identify potential trafficking victims and refer to care. • Continue implementing the national action plan for improving labor conditions in the agricultural sector. • Continue grants that fund anti-trafficking NGOs assisting and sheltering victims who were not admitted to the state-run shelter. • Adopt and implement draft mechanisms to ensure victims are not penalized for unlawful acts traffickers compelled them to commit, including for illegal border crossing and losing personal identification documents. • Adopt draft amendments to the criminal code to protect the identities of trafficking victims. • Encourage prosecutors to proactively seek victim restitution in criminal cases. • Monitor private employment agencies for recruitment fees and ensure they are paid by employers rather than prospective job applicants.
The government decreased the number of investigations, prosecutions, and convictions. Article 135 of the criminal code criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking and prescribed penalties of three to five years’ imprisonment for offenses involving an adult victim and eight to 12 years’ imprisonment for those involving a child victim, which were sufficiently stringent. However, with respect to sex trafficking, by allowing for house arrest in lieu of imprisonment, these penalties were not commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. Inconsistent with the definition of trafficking under international law, the law established the use of force, fraud, or coercion as aggravating factors rather than essential elements of the crime. Forced labor violations were criminalized in 2019 but considered as administrative violations for first offenses with increased fines levied by the labor inspectorate; only repeat offenses were considered criminal. The June 2019 Presidential decree “On Additional Measures to Further Improve the System of Combating Trafficking in Persons and Forced Labor” included a directive to align Article 135 more closely to international law; legislative changes remained in draft at the close of the reporting period.
The government provided more detailed law enforcement data compared to previous years. For the sixth consecutive year, investigations, prosecutions, and convictions declined, although transnational law enforcement efforts increased over the reporting period. The government conducted 66 investigations and prosecuted 53 cases (50 of sexual exploitation and three of forced labor) for crimes related to trafficking in 2019, compared with 123 investigations and 168 prosecutions in 2018 and 609 investigations and 314 prosecutions in 2017. Authorities reported convicting 64 defendants for crimes involving trafficking in 2019, compared with 230 in 2018 and 405 in 2017. Of the 64 convicted traffickers, courts sentenced 18 to imprisonment, 22 to house arrest, 19 to probation, required two to pay fines, and granted three amnesty. NGOs noted some victims reached financial settlements outside of the justice system, in some cases with the facilitation of low-level officials.
The Ministry of Interior (MOI) maintained an investigatory unit dedicated to trafficking crimes. The June 2019 presidential decree mandated the MOI to establish a law enforcement trafficking data repository. In partnership with international organizations and civil society, the government provided trafficking-specific training to police, judges, and other authorities. In September 2019, the Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations conducted training for its increased staff of labor inspectors on identification, investigation, and prevention of forced and child labor with an emphasis on the international and national legislation governing those crimes. In addition to attending state-funded training, government officials participated in seminars and conferences sponsored by the government and taught by NGOs, international organizations, and foreign governments. They also participated in regional anti-trafficking conferences. The MOI helped organize a “Stop Trafficking” law enforcement operation in March 2020 with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. According to the government, the operation launched 2,861 raids that uncovered 41 trafficking crimes and 87 administrative violations.
Despite complicity of local officials in forced labor crimes, particularly in the cotton harvest, the government did not report criminal investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government officials complicit in human trafficking. Uzbek law treated the first instance of officials complicit in forcing individuals to work in the cotton harvest as administrative violations rather than criminal offenses; in 2019, the government increased the fines imposed and criminalized repeat offenses. The government reported issuing administrative fines for forced labor violations to 259 officials in 2019, an increase compared with 206 officials in 2018 and 14 officials in 2017. A new law enacted in April 2019 increased the administrative fine by up to 10 times.
The government demonstrated mixed protection efforts; while it decreased victim identification, it increased funding for victim protection. The government continued to lack comprehensive standard operating procedures (SOPs) to proactively identify victims from vulnerable populations and refer them to care. The government formally identified 95 victims of trafficking in 2019, a steady decrease compared with 208 in 2018, 440 in 2017, and 714 in 2016. Of the 95 victims, 90 were women and five were men; sex traffickers exploited 89 victims and labor traffickers exploited six victims. Fifteen of these victims endured exploitation in Uzbekistan; the majority of victims were exploited abroad. The government did not identify any victims of foreign origin. NGOs identified and assisted hundreds of victims during the reporting period (579 in 2018 and 676 in 2017), the vast majority of whom traffickers exploited in Kazakhstan or Russia; police referred 171 victims to NGOs. NGOs filed 1,346 applications to initiate criminal cases on behalf of victims; the amount that actually resulted in official investigations was unknown, compared with 457 in 2018.
With the assistance of international partners, the government developed a draft law that includes provisions for the protection of victims of trafficking. Per Article 42 of the draft law, victims of human trafficking who committed actions subject to administrative or criminal liability under any form of coercion cannot be placed in a detention facility or jail during an administrative or criminal proceeding or during administrative or pre-trial investigation. International observers argued the government’s lack of SOPs for victim identification may have led to the penalization of potential victims, particularly of vulnerable populations, such as individuals in commercial sex and migrant workers. Current law did not exempt transnational sex and labor trafficking victims from facing a criminal penalty for illegally crossing the border, which deterred some victims from reporting their traffickers. Some victims initially faced a criminal penalty for illegally crossing the border, but NGOs reported authorities dropped these charges when NGOs proved to authorities the victims were subjected to human trafficking.
The June 2019 Presidential Decree mandated the establishment of a national referral mechanism, which it had been developing with international partners, but the government did not report its finalization or implementation. Police, consular officials, and border guards who were able to identify potential trafficking victims could refer them to either a state-run shelter or NGOs for services. The government reported it amended victim assistance protocols. In 2019, victims did not have to file a criminal complaint to receive government-provided rehabilitation and protection services; the government did not report the number of victims who received services without lodging a criminal complaint. NGOs reported local officials regularly referred victims who did not wish to pursue a criminal case to NGO offices for assistance. The majority of identified victims were reluctant to contact or cooperate with law enforcement because of their distrust in authorities and fear for their safety or the safety of their families due to corruption in law enforcement agencies. Uzbekistan’s diplomatic missions abroad helped repatriate 51 victims, an increase from 15 victims in 2018, by issuing travel documents and working with an international organization to provide food, clothing, and transportation to victims to facilitate their repatriation to Uzbekistan. The government increased its support for its own citizens in Russia and South Korea by expanding representative offices of the Agency for External Labor Migration in order to assist vulnerable populations. An NGO in Kazakhstan noted positive collaboration with the Government of Uzbekistan.
In 2019, the government allocated approximately 1.2 billion soum ($126,320), an increase from 475 million soum (approximately $50,000) in 2018, to operate its Tashkent-based trafficking rehabilitation center for men, women, and children with official victim status. The government assisted 220 victims at this facility in 2019, compared with 195 victims in 2018. This center provided shelter, medical, psychological, legal, and job placement assistance. The center had the capacity to accommodate foreign victims, but the government has not served any foreign victims in the shelter since its opening. The government operated 197 centers to assist vulnerable women, including trafficking victims; these centers were managed and funded by regional governments, some of which coordinated with local anti-trafficking organizations. NGOs continued to report cooperation with the government for victim assistance but reported difficulties working with authorities to open legal cases on behalf of the victim; in 2019, the government continued to provide in-kind support to local NGOs for the provision of victim assistance, such as food and clothing. While the government did not provide tax benefits for NGOs, it did provide one NGO free use of a government-owned building. Some NGOs competed for and received grant funding from a general governmental assistance fund; the government reported distributing 817 million soum ($86,000) to these NGOs. NGOs noted MOI officials increasingly complied with legal requirements to maintain victim confidentiality; however, victims’ identities were not kept confidential during court proceedings. Victims could bring civil suits against traffickers, but the government did not provide legal representation for victims, and most victims could not afford legal representation on their own; the government reported no cases were filed in 2019.
The government increased prevention efforts. In July 2019, the president of Uzbekistan created the National Commission on Trafficking in Persons and Forced Labor (the Commission) and appointed the chair of the Senate as the national rapporteur. The Commission was composed of two high-level sub-committees: one on trafficking in persons, chaired by the Minister of Internal Affairs, and one on forced labor, chaired by the Minister of Employment and Labor Relations. The Commission initiated the creation of regional commissions chaired by the governors of the country’s 12 regions, one autonomous republic, and one independent city (Tashkent). The Commission convened monthly, and the regional commissions met every 14 days. Members of the anti-trafficking community from Uzbekistan’s civil society participated in the national and regional meetings. The government adopted a national action plan, a roadmap developed by an NGO, and a series of recommendations submitted to the government by an international organization.
The government continued to take significant steps to reduce the mobilization of its citizens for the forced picking of cotton, including by increasing wages to cotton pickers by 15 percent above 2018 rates for the first pass, maintaining its commitment to not mobilize students, improving working conditions for pickers, and fulfilling its new commitment to not mobilize teachers and medical workers. The 2019 harvest marked the sixth consecutive year the government conducted a nationwide campaign to raise public awareness of its prohibition of child labor in the cotton harvest. The government continued to uphold its ban against the use of child labor in the annual cotton harvest; while there were isolated reports of children working in the fields, there continued to be no reports of systemic mobilization. The government, in coordination with the ILO, continued to conduct awareness-raising campaigns to ensure all citizens were aware of their labor rights. During the 2019 harvest, the central government continued to set cotton production quotas and demand farmers and local officials fulfill these state-assigned quotas, which subsequently led to the mobilization of adult forced labor in some places. Farmers who were unable to fulfill their quotas risked losing the rights to farm their government-leased land. In March 2020, the government announced it would permanently eliminate the cotton quota system for the 2020 fall harvest and onwards.
In previous reporting periods, the government coerced government-employed teachers and medical workers to perform fieldwork without pay and under threat of penalty, including dismissal from their jobs. During the 2019 fall harvest, however, the central government emphasized through wide-reaching awareness campaigns the ban on mobilization of teachers and medical workers. The ILO reported the government effectively implemented the prohibition on forcing students, teachers, nurses, and doctors; independent third-party monitors did not observe these groups picking cotton. Observers continued to credit the increased remuneration for attracting more voluntary cotton pickers in the first weeks of the harvest, including a large number of otherwise unemployed pickers. The government reported it also exempted pickers’ wages from income tax (12 percent) and compulsory savings (seven percent). After the first picking round of the harvest, voluntary laborers decreased, as cotton became less plentiful and the weather worsened. Reports of forced labor increased, particularly in the regions of Syrdarya, Surkhandarya, Khorezm, and Tashkent. To fill the voluntary labor void, local government officials in some regions mobilized other public employees, among others, those at factories, grain mills, utility companies, banks, law enforcement agencies, firefighters, and soldiers, as well as prisoners. The ILO and civil society reported instances of local government officials in some areas requiring public sector employees to pick cotton, or pay for a replacement worker through an unregulated, informal system, creating a penalty for not participating in the forced labor system and a lucrative means of extortion for corrupt officials. In some cases, local governments pressured private businesses to provide pickers or pay fees to support the harvest, although it was not always clear if the fees funded payment of local administrative costs, or were a means of extortion. NGOs reported many of the voluntary pickers preferred to be hired as replacement pickers by those seeking to avoid the cotton fields, which enabled them to earn income beyond the picking wages.
For the fifth consecutive year, the government allowed the ILO to monitor the cotton harvest for child and forced labor, and ILO monitors had unimpeded access to the cotton fields for observations and to interview laborers. The ILO assessed the government forced approximately 102,000 pickers out of an estimated 1.75 million member workforce to work in the 2019 harvest; a decrease compared with 170,000 in 2018 and 336,000 in 2017. However, the ILO noted that in 2019 the annual rate in the reduction of forced laborers has slowed compared with previous years. Some experts continued to criticize the ILO’s methodology and assessed that the ILO findings underestimated the level of forced labor in the harvest; however, the experts agreed the government was making concerted efforts to reduce forced labor. For the second year, the government granted the ILO access to data acquired through the government’s Cotton Harvest Feedback Mechanism, which included telephone hotlines and messaging applications dedicated to receiving reports of labor violations; the mechanism received 1,563 complaints related to forced labor during the cotton harvest season, and the government allowed the ILO to observe how it addressed such complaints. The government doubled the number of labor investigators assigned to look into these complaints across the country to 400. The government reported these complaints resulted in fines to 259 officials totaling 550 million soum ($57,890), compared with 202 fines in 2018. The government did not share additional details on the total number of forced labor victims, including children, identified through the mechanism. Observers continued to report concerns about the effectiveness of the feedback mechanism, stating some pickers were concerned about reprisal or the effectiveness of investigations. For the second year, the government included independent human rights activists in plans to monitor the harvest, conduct field interviews, participate in awareness raising activities, and review cases gathered through the mechanism. Observers reported isolated incidents in which local government officials harassed and temporarily detained independent civil society who attempted to monitor the cotton harvest. Media, including state media outlets, continued to report on forced labor practices, problems, and violations without penalization or censorship.
The government continued to implement ILO recommendations, further reduced land allocated for cotton cultivation, and purchased more machinery to work toward the mechanization of the harvest. In 2019, the government reported opening an additional 61 private textile-cotton clusters (13 in 2018), which accounted for 63 percent of cotton production land. The clusters processed cotton from cultivation to finished textile products and paid higher wages to workers. While the ILO reported a reduced risk of forced labor within clusters, the central government still set quotas for these private clusters during the reporting period, and independent observers continued to identify instances of forced labor on cluster farmlands.
In the previous reporting period, the government reported encouraging ministers to use a special fund under the Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations to recruit unemployed individuals for public works, instead of compelling civil servants and students to perform public works. The government did not report how much money it allocated to the fund in 2019, compared with allocating 714 billion soum ($75.16 million) to this fund in 2018. The Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations did note it had collected 6.6 billion soum ($694,740) in fines for labor violations which were contributed to the fund. In 2019, the government ratified four ILO conventions; Convention 144 on tripartite consultation (international labor standards), Protocol P029 of 2014 to the forced labor convention, Convention 129 on labor inspection in agriculture, and Convention 81 on labor inspection and industry and trade. An NGO reported the central government continued to set silk cocoon production quotas; officials stated their intent to significantly increase silk production in private homes, despite the hazardous nature of home silk production. The government continued to call for hashar, or volunteer workdays, throughout the country; some local leaders characterized cotton picking and street cleaning as hashar.
The government provided support to labor migrants abroad, including victims of forced labor, and allocated a budget of 200 billion soum ($21.05 million) for assistance to labor migrants. The Uzbekistan Agency for Foreign Labor Migration continued outreach to prospective labor migrants, serving to reduce potential risks of trafficking among this population. The Agency conducted pre-departure consultations on labor and migration laws in the country of destination, which issued health insurance, cell phone SIM cards, and provided detailed information about how to legally enter, remain, and work in Russia. The government also operated a 24-hour hotline in Russia that provided Uzbek labor migrants with legal advice and advised them of their rights, and directed them to the nearest consulate for assistance. The government maintained employment agreements to protect citizens’ labor rights with Japan, Poland, Russia, South Korea, and Turkey. Private companies, including foreign and local, had official permission from the government to recruit Uzbek citizens for jobs abroad and within Uzbekistan. Although the companies were required to obtain licenses, the government did not report the number of licenses granted nor any monitoring of recruitment fees charged to job applicants.
The expanded labor inspectorate conducted 21,172 inspections and investigated 18,332 complaints in 2019; the inspectorate did not provide additional information on forced labor cases, or report screening for trafficking indicators or referring any cases for criminal investigation. The labor inspectorate was not empowered to bring criminal charges for first time violations of the law against forced labor. Authorities continued to hold wide- scale public awareness efforts on transnational sex and labor trafficking, including through events, print media, television, and radio, often through partnering with and providing in-kind support to NGOs. The government maintained a 24-hour hotline; in 2019, the line received 422 trafficking-related phone calls, of which 75 were identified as trafficking victims. An NGO maintained a foreign donor-funded hotline. The government did not conduct efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts.
As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic victims in Uzbekistan, and traffickers exploit victims from Uzbekistan abroad. During 2019, the government continued to demand farmers and local officials fulfill state-assigned cotton production quotas or face penalties, which caused local officials to compel work in the annual cotton harvest. The ILO and observers noted the systemic mobilization of child labor was eliminated in the 2017 harvest, although isolated reports of the use of child labor continue. During the 2019 cotton harvest, the ILO reported a decrease in the use of government-compelled forced labor, citing no evidence of systemic mobilizations of students, teachers, nurses, and doctors. However, local officials forced other groups of public employees to work in the cotton harvest when there was a lack of voluntary workers. International reports indicate some adults who refused to pick cotton, did not pay for a replacement worker, or did not fulfill their daily quota could face the loss of social benefits, termination of employment, or other forms of harassment. Some employees and market vendors could choose to hire a replacement picker directly, pay a fee for the mobilizer to find a replacement picker, or pay a fine rather than pick cotton, a coercive, though illegal, system that penalized those who chose not to participate in the harvest and created a lucrative means of extortion for corrupt managers and officials. Private companies in some regions mobilized employees for the harvest under the threat of increased government inspections of, and taxes on, their operations.
Government-compelled forced labor of adults remained in other sectors as well. In years past, there were isolated reports stating that local officials forced farmers to cultivate silk cocoons, and uncorroborated reports that they removed children from school to harvest the cocoons. Despite an April 2018 government prohibition, there continued to be instances of local officials forcing teachers, students (including children), private businesses employees, and others to work in construction and other forms of non-cotton agriculture and to clean parks, streets, and buildings. Officials occasionally compelled labor by labeling these tasks as hashar, voluntary work for the community’s benefit.
Traffickers exploit Uzbek women and children in sex trafficking in the Middle East, Eurasia, and Asia, and internally in brothels, clubs, and private residences. Children in institutions were vulnerable to sex trafficking. Traffickers subject Uzbek men, and to a lesser extent women, to forced labor in Kazakhstan, Russia, Moldova, Turkey, and in other Asian, Middle Eastern, and European countries in the construction, oil and gas, agricultural, retail, and food sectors. An NGO noted that Uzbek citizens who had traveled with official employment contracts to Russia under a 2017 migrant labor agreement were vulnerable to forced labor, as the employers in Russia failed to properly register the migrants with the authorities, forced them to live in barracks, and underpaid or did not pay them at all.