Thomson Reuters Foundation

Nurses and teachers in Uzbekistan are being forced by officials to clean streets, plant trees and harvest wheat or face the sack, fines or pay cuts, despite a government drive to end state-imposed work, labour rights groups said on Thursday.

Under international pressure, including boycotts by fashion giants, the Central Asian country has pointed to its efforts to end the use of forced labour by adults and children in its cotton industry - where it is one of the world's top exporters.

Uzbekistan report

Cover of the joint UGF-Solidarity Center report.

But public sector workers are still forced by the government to carry out other manual labour, said the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights and the US-based Solidarity Center in a report revealed exclusively by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The report - based on interviews with about 260 people such as teachers and medics - also found that taking civil servants away from their real work hurts services including healthcare.

"There is a tradition, or a culture, in Uzbekistan of people being forced to do unpaid, public work," said Umida Niyazova, director of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights.

"Cotton is not the only sector where forced labour exists."

The Uzbek labour ministry said the government had adopted regulations aimed at preventing forced work, with authorities instructed to "eliminate deficiencies in the work of state institutions" and to "completely eradicate forced labour".

"For many years, the existence of forced labour in our country was hidden," Erkin Mukhitdinov, first deputy minister for the ministry, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation via email.

"Today, we openly acknowledge that there are still cases...in cotton picking as well as street cleaning and other areas."

Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov said in 2017 that thousands of students, teachers and health workers would no longer take part in the annual cotton harvest - the world's largest recruitment operation, with about 2.6 million temporary pickers each year.

The United Nations International Labour Organization said in November that 93 per cent of people involved in the 2018 cotton harvest had worked voluntarily, and the systematic recruitment of students, teachers and healthcare workers had ended.

Yet the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights said at the time that state-imposed labour was still "massive".

Although the government has repeatedly denounced forced labour, local officials regard civil servants as a constant source of labour to fulfil regional needs or centrally imposed state quotas of items such as wheat and silk, the report said.

"Local officials are stuck between a rock and a hard place," said Abby McGill, a program officer with the Solidarity Center.

"They are told to not mobilise people for forced labour but are still given quotas and know they'll be punished for not meeting them," she said. "Uzbekistan's solutions to this problem are too narrow...they need a human rights-based approach."

Ending forced labour and protecting workers will require reforms such as independent unions, complaint mechanisms and access to remedies for victims, the rights groups and ILO said.

The ILO said it last year trained more than 200 labour inspectors in Uzbekistan on how to investigate forced labour, and helped the labour ministry to set up worker hotlines.

"Strong political commitment and work on eradicating forced labour in the cotton fields have had a positive impact in other sectors," said Jonas Astrup, an ILO chief technical advisor.

"It is normal that [labour reform] policies are set at the central level and implemented at the local level," he said. "It is also normal that there is a certain lag in that process."

The ILO and Solidarity Center said Uzbekistan's push to process its cotton and make textiles could create full-time jobs that would reduce seasonal demand for labour and lessen abuses.

About 25 million people globally are estimated to be victims of forced labour - across farms, factories, and fishing boats - with four million trapped in state-imposed labour, the ILO says.