Tbilisi, Georgia
Thomson Reuters Foundation

Uzbekistan made "major progress" on stamping out forced labour in its cotton harvest last year, when 94 per cent of pickers worked voluntarily, the United Nations said on Wednesday.

The Central Asian country, one of the world's biggest cotton exporters, has for years been under international pressure to end the use of forced labour by adults and children.

Uzbekistan cotton

A Uzbek girl collects cotton on the field some 50 kilometres south from Tashkent. PICTURE: Reuters

Last year about one in eight adults, or 1.75 million people, took part in the annual harvest, of whom 102,000 were victims of forced labour - down 40 per cent on the previous year, the UN International Labour Organization said in a report.

"Forced labour is completely unacceptable and has no place in modern Uzbekistan," said Tanzila Narbaeva, chairwoman of the Uzbek Senate, in a statement.

"We still have work to do, but we are encouraged that the reforms are showing such positive results."

Some human rights groups said government-imposed cotton quotas meant local officials known as hokims were still forcing people into the fields when they could not find enough willing workers.

"If...over 100,000 people were forcibly mobilised during the last cotton harvest, this demonstrates that the means of coercion are still in place," said Joanna Ewart-James, executive director of the anti-slavery organisation Freedom United. 

The Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights said a ban on the recruitment of students, teachers and health workers had been observed in 2019, but other public servants had been hired instead.

Uzbek Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov has vowed to eradicate the problem since taking office in 2016 and President Shavkat Mirziyoyev said earlier this year the country would phase out authorities' involvement in the harvest. 

In 2019, pickers reported better working conditions and higher salaries, while authorities doubled the number of inspectors, handed out more fines and introduced new legislation criminalizing forced labour, the ILO said. 

It said the progress made meant that the "systematic" use of child and forced labour had "come to an end".