The furor over the State Department’s decision to upgrade Malaysia in its annual Trafficking in Persons ratings – widely seen as an effort to facilitate the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations – has obscured an equally egregious case: Uzbekistan.  In Uzbekistan, the government is the trafficker-in-chief, annually forcing more than a million citizens to pick cotton each year. Nonetheless, the U.S. rewarded it with an upgrade in the TIP Report, established to assess the efforts of governments to combat trafficking.  Sadly, this upgrade not only fails to fully take into account the reality of the situation in Uzbekistan.  It also degrades the credibility of the State Department’s report, which has become the most authoritative assessment of where governments stand on this critical issue.

In 2014, the year in focus in the 2015 TIP Report, the Uzbek government forced farmers to grow cotton and at least a million teachers, doctors, nurses and other citizens to harvest it, all under threat of penalty. In only the first half of this year, it forced thousands of citizens to prepare cotton fields for planting, brutalized citizens attempting to document forced labor and deported an international labor expert simply for informing a legally registered human rights group about international labor conventions.

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In justifying the upgrade, the State Department cites a government decree reiterating its pre-existing law prohibiting child labor, fined school directors and farmers for child labor, signed an agreement with the International Labour Organization and did not use forced child labor nationwide to harvest cotton for the first time in 2014.  What the report misses is that to replace the lost child laborers the Uzbek government simply forced more adults to work in the field, continuing a policy of shifting the demographics of forced labor without dismantling the forced labor system the government itself created.  Moreover, as the report also notes, in a number of areas local officials continued to force teenagers to labor “under pressure to fulfill government-decreed cotton quotas.”  As long as the Uzbek government fails to take real steps to dismantle the current system, restated commitments and selective actions on child labor simply do not represent substantial efforts to comply with the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the law mandating the TIP Report.

The day after the TIP report release, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that a 58-year old woman died of heat stroke while weeding cotton fields in Uzbekistan, work she was forced to do under threat of losing her job. On July 2, 2015, a 29-year old farmer hanged himself after his mayor threatened to imprison him for not fulfilling state-assigned production quotas- the fourth farmer suicide in Uzbekistan in the last two years. On July 24, a 19-year old nurse fainted from heat stroke while weeding cotton fields under orders from their hospital administrator; temperatures that day broke 120º Fahrenheit. The people of Uzbekistan have yet to feel progress.

The TIP Report carries significant weight when it presents analysis of the facts. Governments, companies, civil society around the world look to the report as an authoritative assessment of government action on human trafficking. Even recognizing the inevitable interagency debates about the political dynamics of any government report, the apparent pliability of TIP Report rankings not only degrades the credibility of the report but diminishes the utility of the report as an incentive for governments to strengthen their efforts to curtail the scourge of trafficking in all its forms, from the cotton fields of Uzbekistan to the factories of Malaysia.

Perhaps the U.S. may expect the upgrade will acknowledge the limited progress recently made on child labor and encourage the Uzbek government to start taking steps to end forced labor.  But that appears to be wishful thinking.

Having made the unfortunate decision to upgrade Uzbekistan in the TIP Report, the burden rests squarely on the U.S. government to press the Uzbekistan authorities harder than ever.  The time has run out for the “strategic patience” that Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Nisha Desai Biswal proposed earlier this year to guide the U.S. relationship with Uzbekistan.  Now in the face of one of the largest state-run forced labor systems in the world, it is time for strategic impatience, for the U.S. to press the Uzbek government to once and for all take concrete steps to end its egregious use of forced labor. 

Freeman is a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Niyazova is the director of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, an organization she founded as a political refugee, having been imprisoned by the Uzbek government for human rights reporting. Both work with the Cotton Campaign, a global coalition of labor, human rights, investor and business organizations coalesced to end forced labor in the cotton sector.