Tanzila Narbaeva, the Deputy Prime Minister of Uzbekistan, told EURACTIV about her country’s efforts to develop modern agriculture, eliminate child or forced labour and invest in human capital, especially women.
Tanzila Narbaeva is Deputy Prime Minister of Uzbekistan and Chairman of the Women’s Committee. She spoke to EURACTIV’s Senior Editor Georgi Gotev on 2 April. The interview was conducted in Russian.
What is the purpose of your visit to Brussels?
I attended a forum on labour issues to inform the European Parliament, the European Union as a whole, and all interested, about the reforms, the changes, and also the problematic issues in the social and labour sphere in Uzbekistan. And previously, I attended a forum organised by the NGO Cotton campaign, who wanted to hear about the results of our work, together with the International Labour Organisation (ILO), for meeting the international commitments our country took. Uzbekistan has ratified several conventions of ILO and committed to guarantee the rights of workers in all spheres. In the past, Cotton Campaign have criticised our country of not meeting international standards.
Since Shavkat Mirziyoyev took over in December 2016, following the death of President Islam Kasimov, the situation has changed?
Indeed, this is why they invited us, realising that many reforms were underway in our country. I can say that their opinion about our country is changing rapidly. They have understood, and have acknowledged the ongoing changes in our country.
Let’s explain to those who are not so familiar: in the past, Uzbekistan was criticised by NGOs and international organisations for child labour and forced labour, especially in cotton harvesting. What has changed in the meantime?
I should explain that this is inheritance from the former Soviet Union, when the children were harvesting cotton. So it’s not a tradition of the Uzbek people, there is such a practice also in other countries. But in the case of Uzbekistan, children indeed took part in the harvest, helped their parents, I wouldn’t call it forced labour, but the practice existed.
From 2013 our country entered in relations with ILO, after we ratified in 2008 two conventions on child labour, against the worst forms of child labour, and about the minimal age. Since then we introduced new legislation, the attitude changed, and in 2013 we accepted the monitoring of ILO. In 2014 it was recognised that child labour on systematic basis no longer existed, and our country was excluded from the list of 25 countries that systematically don’t comply with international commitments.
After that, in 2014, we had on the agenda the elimination of forced labour. The coordination council which I’m chairing, it was created in 2013, was dealing with this issue. In 2014 we also got in touch on this issue with the EU, with the World Bank, and in 2015 we accepted monitoring, which is taking place from 2016 without the participation of state structures, directly by ILO, together with our civil society.
Since Mr Mirziyoyev took over, things changed radically. They started listening to the people. Ever since he was still acting president, he created people’s call centres. He opened dialogue with the people. That was unusual, also for the civil servants. It was unusual for the people as well. Just after, in 2017, when he was already President, he declared the Year of Dialogue with the people. Ever since, the dialogue continues on a daily basis. Since then, the government learned to listen activists raising human right issues.
In a nutshell, you are mobilised to solve the old problems the country was criticised about?
Absolutely. In 2018 during the cotton season ILO conducted its independent monitoring, and at the conference I just attended there was a presentation of its results. It was acknowledged that 93% of the cotton pickers have said that they work voluntarily, and moreover, their wages were increased significantly, the work conditions were improved, and generally, this activity became attractive.
But the most important thing is the mechanism for feedback from the population. Now every ministry and institution has such people’s call centres. Another advance is improving the potential of our managers. Until recently they were unaware of their duties under the international agreements. This is the case of farmers, of employers. Now they have undergone training via dedicated institutes for improving their professional qualifications. Even ministers, mayors undergo such training.
Another effort is to inform the population, to put an end to old stereotypes, like people being obliged to render a service to somebody else. “Somebody asked me, I cannot refuse”, this was the tradition before. A farmer asks: please help me with the harvest. And even if the person doesn’t want, it feels obliged to help. ILO has identified such stereotypes in the national character. But now our campaign makes it clear to the population: this is your personal choice, you are allowed to say no, and nobody will punish you.
At the 2017 session of the UN General Assembly President Mirziyoyev expressed his political will that the country would comply with all international standards in the field of labour. After that followed six decrees and a strategy for the development of agriculture was adopted. The bottom line is that until we don’t complete the transition to market economy, the risks of persistence of forced labour will exist. But the strategy is already adopted, and by the way, we got precious help from ILO and the World Bank. A strategy we developed jointly for the future of agriculture until 2030 foresees the elimination up to 90% of manual work.
Another element of the agriculture reform is diversification. We are reducing the surfaces cultivated with cotton. Also, we are creating integrated clusters. Last year we had one such cluster in each of our 13 provinces. This year we will have 73 clusters, meaning that producers will harvest the cotton, produce the cotton fibre and also the final textile products. We will stop selling cotton as a commodity. We will process it and sell a finished product.
But no matter what laws we are adopting, the most important is to raise the awareness of people, of the employers and also of the employed. So we are working to boost our human capital.
You met today with the EU Commissioner for Development Neven Mimica. What did you discuss with him?
The EU was the first to acknowledge our progress. Then followed the US State Department. The international community is aware of our progress. The EU has helped finance research, monitoring and human capital development. With the Commissioner, we also discussed the diversification of our relations. The Commission is preparing its new strategy for Central Asia. And we suggested they help us address the unemployment problem. Every year 600,000 children are born, and the same number every year join the labour force.
This is why ensuring employment opportunities is the priority of our government. Also, as a result of introducing modern technologies in agriculture, many people remain redundant, and most of them are women. This is why we asked the Commission to envisage programs for employment of women, for the development of craftsmanship, of cooperatives, for encouraging small family business.
60% of our population lives in rural areas, and of them 50% are women. Gender equality is a state policy, by decree of the President a Gender Commission has been created on 7 March, for the first time in the history of Uzbekistan. In every region of the country centres for women entrepreneurship are created, where women are trained in running small enterprises and are given micro credits. We started all this ourselves. We asked the EU to support this activity.