BY CHANGING THE STATUS OF EMPLOYEES TO “SERVICE PROVIDERS”, INDORAMA AGRO IS DECIMATING UNION MEMBERSHIP. INTERNATIONAL STAKEHOLDERS INCLUDING EBRD, IFC AND BCI MUST ENSURE COMPLIANCE WITH NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL LABOR STANDARDS.
On December 28, 2022, 392 workers of Indorama Agro in the Syrdarya region of Uzbekistan were told that their contracts as Nano Unit Workers (NUWs) would not be extended. Instead, they would be given new “service contracts”, whereby the former NUWs would be required to grow cotton and grain for the company for a paltry fee and assume all of the associated entrepreneurial risks. The new contracts effectively ended their employment relationship with the company although the work and activities set out in them are almost identical to those in their previous contracts.
The annual cotton harvest in Uzbekistan, which began in stages in early September, is coming to an end. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, 21,379 brigades covering nearly two million pickers were formed for the 2022 cotton harvest season.
Uzbekistan’s 2022 annual cotton harvest is currently in full swing, with farmers across the country selling their cotton not to the state, as was the case for the past several decades, but to clusters – private enterprises that process cotton into yarn or finished products.
The report outlines how, despite efforts to increase transparency and accountability in public procurement and public sector hiring, gaps in legislation and a lack of enforcement hinder genuine progress in these areas. Access to Information (ATI) remains another key challenge, as information requests are often refused or ignored by public authorities and judicial challenges to such refusals tend to be ineffective. Furthermore, loopholes in anti-money laundering regulations – such as the absence of a definition of ‘public official’ – and the failure to conduct due diligence checks pose great corruption risks that must be urgently addressed.
Will international donors legitimize Uzbekistan’s tightening grip on civil society?
The modernization of agriculture in Uzbekistan, for which Uzbekistan has received millions of dollars in investment by multilateral development banks, including the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the World Bank, has been accompanied by massive confiscations of farmland across the country.
In 2020, Indorama Agro disclosed the project’s final Environmental and Social Impact Assessment, Environmental and Social Management Plan and Livelihood Restoration Plan. These documents are intended to provide an overall picture of risks to the Bank and potentially affected communities and to serve as the basis for mitigating these risks accordingly. Bankwatch made a quality analysis of this documentation. The findings confirmed the lack of integrated impact assessment and focused risk mitigation, a participative and sustainability-led approach, and accountability. The analysis also flags non-compliance with the EBRD performance standards on impact assessment, workers’ health, biodiversity impact, land acquisition, stakeholder engagement and labour rights. The project is exclusively assessed in compliance with Uzbek regulations rather than the best available international practices (i.e. those of the WHO and ILO) and performance standards, which contradicts the EBRD’s requirements. Finally, the project documentation does not contain a comprehensive human rights risk assessment, including the risks from land acquisition and public participation, or from publicly raising concerns in an authoritarian setting.
In this guest column written exclusively for Apparel Insider, Lynn Schweisfurth of the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights argues that while the end of systematic forced labour in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan is an important landmark, significant human rights risks remain.
While the Uzbek Government celebrates the end of the boycott of Uzbek cotton following the eradication of systematic, state-imposed forced labour, farmers find themselves at the mercy of a system rigged against them.
As events in Kazakhstan continue to spook neighboring Central Asian countries whose populations suffer almost identical social grievances, including grand corruption, increasing poverty, and soaring fuel prices, efforts of Uzbekistan’s authorities to stifle criticism of its government have been gathering pace long before the unrest in Kazakhstan erupted in early January of this year. Despite President Mirziyoyev’s much lauded reform program which has focused mainly on the economy, civil and political reforms have lagged well behind. Freedom of speech, freedom of association and the right of civil society groups to register formally as NGOs have failed to see any relaxation of draconian, Soviet-style rules of play. Indeed, the Uzbek government appears to have stepped up its control over the Internet and bloggers and journalists repeatedly receive “invitations” from the authorities to remind them of the boundaries of what they may report on.
Human rights activist Umida Niyazova spoke to Fergana News about a recent trip to her homeland and her impression of new realities after many years in exile. The course towards greater openness and liberalization in Uzbekistan following the change of power in 2016 presented political emigrants with the possibility of returning to their homeland, at least for a short time. Some of them took the risk and then, with pleasant surprise, reported how they could cross of the border smoothly, easily register at their place of accommodation, and the lack of attention paid to them by the security forces, at least not that they noticed. Their stories were optimistic and the number of dissidents and political refugees visiting Uzbekistan slowly began to grow.