A Toxic Legacy
The spectre of the use of child and forced labour to pick cotton haunts the Uzbek government to this day. At its peak, the government orchestrated the world’s largest seasonal recruitment effort, which involved the forced mobilisation of approximately one million children, students and adults to pick cotton, resulting in a global boycott by some of the world’s leading brands and retailers.
The Uzbek Forum for Human Rights (formerly Uzbek-German Forum/UGF) has monitored child and forced labour in the cotton sector in Uzbekistan since 2009. Ten years ago, the Uzbek government categorically denied the very existence of child labour and even accused human rights activists of lies and deception. The harvesting of the ‘white gold’, worth approximately $1.5 billion in 2019, meant the closure of schools, colleges and universities every autumn to send schoolchildren and students to pick cotton for the state. As one school director explained, “Cotton is not a plant, it is politics”. It is worth remembering that the current president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, in his role as Prime Minister at the time, oversaw the cotton harvest and had personal responsibility for fulfilling cotton quotas which relied on forced mobilisation.
During those years, in the absence of the slightest hope that the Uzbek government would ever abstain from this constant, convenient supply of cheap labour that inflated the state’s badly needed income, local and international human rights activists called for a boycott of Uzbek cotton as the only means available to exert influence on the authoritarian power in Tashkent. The petition grew into a global boycott of Uzbek cotton, led by the Cotton Campaign, and has to date been signed by over 300 brands including Zara, H&M, Walmart, Marks & Spencer, Ikea and many more. Given the sensitivity of brands and retailers to the threat of consumer boycotts because of links to child labour and modern slavery, it did not take much to persuade them to sign up.
When human rights activists filed a complaint with the World Bank in 2013 after identifying the use of child and forced labour in projects it was financing, the government could no longer ignore the pressure of potentially losing millions of dollars in investments. In 2017, after decades of denial, President Mirziyoyev finally acknowledged the existence of forced labour, a long-awaited confirmation that it had not been a figment of the imagination of troublesome human rights activists.
Impact of Reforms
Since then, the government has taken concrete steps that have led to a marked decline in the number of people being forced into the fields: wages for cotton pickers have increased attracting more voluntary pickers and providing welcome seasonal income for rural communities; the use of forced labour is now a criminal offence under Uzbek law for repeat offenders; there are now more trained labour inspectors; a nationwide outreach campaign has raised awareness among the population; and there has been an increased number of investigations and punishments for the use of forced labour.
Although President Mirziyoyev cannot be considered a democratic reformer, he is no Vaclav Havel, and while the reform process has focussed mainly on the economy, he deserves some credit. He has begun to discuss the huge backlog of human rights issues in the country and there has been a significant opening up to international organisations, such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and United Nations (UN) agencies. Independent media outlets have sprung up that have surprised with vocal criticism of the government and hundreds of political prisoners have been released. Civil society, however, for the most part remains weakened by decades of Soviet-style dictatorship and plans to reverse that still do not yet appear to be moving up the line of priorities of presidential decrees. In a country attempting such sweeping reforms without actually altering the authoritarian nature of government, there are bound to be challenges in the implementation of new laws in the absence of independent institutions.
Not all efforts to reform the cotton sector however have proved efficient and often expose uneven and sometimes arbitrary application. Mechanisms such as hotlines to report instances of forced labour have been shown to be ineffective because they are not independent of the government and require complainants to divulge personal information such as name, address, passport number and place of work. Many victims are therefore naturally reluctant to file complaints for fear of reprisals. Criminalisation of forced labour only came into force in 2020 for repeat offenders and although there have been administrative punishments, they were often not made public. In some cases where perpetrators were held accountable, forced labour continued at the same premises by the same perpetrator only days later. Because of a lack of transparency in how investigations are handled, it appears that those held accountable are not actually the ones giving orders to forcibly recruit cotton pickers. Where doctors and teachers were found guilty of using forced labour, no-one investigated further as to why people with no connection to the cotton sector would be motivated to lose their staff to picking cotton.
Uzbek Forum’s latest report on the 2019 harvest found that forced labour remained widespread, albeit to a far lesser degree than in previous years, a sign that the reform process is indeed taking hold. However, the ILO’s estimate of 102,000 forced pickers, based on a nationwide telephone poll, does not appear to reflect the wider patterns of coercion that Uzbek Forum monitors documented. A lack of effective recruitment systems, for example, mean that local authorities are still involved in mobilising pickers. Given the power these officials wield over local communities, such as the disbursement of social benefits, the pressure to follow the call to the fields is difficult to withstand. As one community leader pointed out, “It’s a good thing that we control their benefits payments, or we would never be able to find enough pickers to fulfill our recruitment quota.”
There is clear evidence of the continued role of the state in cotton production, despite the privatisation process. In many cases documented by Uzbek Forum monitors during the 2019 harvest, orders were given to state- and privately-owned enterprises including banks, local administrations and government agencies to either send employees to the fields or pay for replacement pickers, leaving many employees short of up to two months’ salary during the harvest. In short, Uzbekistan’s cotton sector still has red flags all over it (although it is worth remembering that there were a number of private companies operating in Uzbekistan even while schoolchildren, some as young as ten, were routinely bussed from school to pick cotton in the blazing sun and exposed to dangerous chemicals). So despite reforms, the question remains as to why they have not yet led to the eradication of forced labour.
Where the State and the Private Sector Merge
Until 2017 when privatisation began, the Uzbek government retained a monopoly over the cotton sector, controlling price, production, sales and inputs such as fertilisers and seeds. This state involvement, in particular the state-set production quota, has been the key driving force in the persistence of forced labour. The responsibility for delivery of quotas lie with local officials or hokims throughout the regions. These officials are under enormous pressure, often under the threat of penalty, to fulfil their quotas even in the absence of sufficient picker numbers, particularly in less populous regions such as Jizzakh. Tape recordings, in which hokims can be heard berating, insulting and even beating farmers for failing to deliver their quotas, have been made available to Uzbek Forum many times over the years. The pressure from the government to meet cotton quotas is simply passed down the chain of command until tens of thousands of Uzbeks find themselves often miles from home for days on end picking cotton in derelict accommodation, often without access to clean drinking water. Every year has brought at least one death on the fields.
In March this year, following meetings of delegates of the Cotton Campaign with government officials in Tashkent, a presidential decree was passed that abolishes the state quota system. This significant step simultaneously removes the motivation of hokims to force people to deliver quotas and instead leaves production targets in the hands of private companies. The government plans to privatise the entire sector by the end of 2020 through ‘cotton textile clusters’ which are designed to bring production, processing and manufacturing into the hands of single private operators, thus increasing the value chain and creating badly needed jobs. In 2019, 75 private clusters accounted for 73 per cent of Uzbekistan’s cotton production. However, the private sector cannot be a guarantee of the absence of forced labour, especially in a country without independent trade unions and where the concentration of money and political power is in the hands of a few.
The Impact of Cotton Clusters on Farmers
The cotton cluster system has brought with it a whole new set of problems. Farmers, for example, have long been at the mercy of the whims of the state. They do not own their land but lease it from the government usually for a period of between 30 and 49 years. Since privatisation began, farmers have been reporting that unscrupulous methods have been used to transfer their land to private operators with little or no compensation. Numerous ‘land optimisations’ in recent years have seen farmers have their land confiscated for ‘failure to fulfil the cotton quota’.
Historically, farmers have had little freedom to choose what products to cultivate and, given the intense effort required to grow cotton profitably, many would prefer to cultivate fruit and vegetables which may be more suited to their soil and bring higher yields. Farmers claim that they are often pressured by hokims to sign contracts obliging them to deliver unrealistically high amounts of cotton, forcing them again to choose cotton over more profitable crops to meet the production target or lose their land. Others reported this year that they had still not received payment for cotton they delivered in 2018. Some have alleged that they have been forced to sign contracts without the name of the private operator and the production targets left blank. In one case, farmers complained that they did not even know who the director of the cluster was or to whom they should direct their complaints. Uzbekistan’s agriculture sector looks increasingly precarious for those trying to make a living from it. The vulnerability of farmers to exploitative practises is compounded by the concentration of entire districts in the hands of one cluster, a pattern that comes dangerously close to regional monopolies. A number of these new clusters have gone to considerable lengths to conceal their ownership structures and many are registered as Limited Liability Companies in the United Kingdom (UK), a preferred method for those wishing to veil owners, beneficiaries and most of all taxes.
The government may be heading towards eschewing the responsibility for forced labour in the cotton sector and will no doubt declare victory if in future the blame can be laid at the feet of private operators. Indeed, Uzbek Forum has found evidence of forced labour at a number of privately-operated clusters. In 2019, the government still imposed state quotas for cotton production for which local authorities have the responsibility to deliver, including cotton produced by private clusters. Again, the responsibility of hokims to either meet those quotas or face consequences such as dismissal, coupled with regional shortages of labour, meant that cluster operators knowingly or otherwise had their cotton harvested by people under coercion. Even companies which were consciously making an effort to avoid the use of forced labour found themselves caught between the competing priorities of local officials to meet their targets and avoid penalties, and farmers who were unable to attract enough voluntary labour at the end of the season when weather conditions are harsh and earning potential is low.
These prevailing challenges have nonetheless failed to dampen the Uzbek government’s enthusiasm to have the ban on its cotton lifted – notably supported by the ILO which itself confirms the persistent widespread use of forced labour. PR campaigns proclaiming that ‘Uzbekistan is open for business’ and that the boycott is preventing job creation in a country with rampant and growing unemployment, have been ubiquitous both at home but more noticeably abroad. The argument for lifting the boycott was sharpened as soon as COVID-19 reached Uzbekistan. In an open letter issued together with a press release, the Minister of Labour urged the Cotton Campaign to show its solidarity with the people of Uzbekistan, in a sleight of hand reversal of the understanding of solidarity.
The Way Forward
The erasure of the toxic legacy of Uzbek cotton will require more explicit political reforms if the government is to successfully coax international brands to re-enter the Uzbek market. Even conservative ILO estimates of 102,000 forced cotton pickers during the 2019 harvest do not impart a message of confidence to would-be buyers of Uzbek cotton, no matter how the numbers are packaged. Apparel companies conduct extensive due diligence which go beyond the use of forced labour. They include ethical and social indicators to assess the risk of human rights violations in their supply chains. The European Union (EU) has recently taken a further step to strengthen corporate accountability, raising the bar higher for those wishing to do business in countries that lack democratic oversight.
If the government is to create a business-friendly environment that guarantees transparency, accountability and rule of law and gives assurances to brands and retailers, it must urgently acknowledge that sustainable reform cannot be achieved in the absence of a vibrant and empowered civil society. Without independent trade unions, transparency, rule of law, accountability and registered non-governmental organisations (NGOs) free from government interference, there are no voices other than a handful of courageous human rights defenders with the ability to monitor and report on forced labour and other human rights abuses in the sector. This point was reinforced in a recent joint article by representatives of the United States (US) Fashion Industry Association and the American Apparel & Footwear Association in which they argue that “ending the boycott must be matched with more ironclad commitments for responsible sourcing and investment that respect labour and human rights in the country.”
President Mirziyoyev should heed that sage advice and legitimise the participation of civil society to foster a business environment that respects human rights. Mirziyoyev’s track record shows a less determined inclination to do so. Since coming to power, only one single independent human rights organisation has been registered, the second since 2003. Independent initiative groups are rejected time and again for failing to comply with the cumbersome registration process and are often subjected to threats and harassment by the authorities.
The initiative group Chiroq, founded by an Uzbek Forum monitor in Karakalpakstan, not only had its application to register rejected twice, but was the target of a concerted effort by the authorities to prevent its members from meeting with Cotton Campaign delegates while they visited the region in February this year. Uzbek Forum published a chronology of incidents Chiroq has experienced in its attempts to be legitimately registered as an NGO. In a recent troubling incident on June 8th, four human rights defenders were arbitrarily detained while monitoring child labour in cotton weeding in the Namangan region. The activists were forcibly tested for COVID-19 and placed under police-supervised quarantine, an action that appeared intended to limit their monitoring, not protect public health. This year, the government will draft a new NGO code, providing a unique opportunity to send a strong, clear message to civil society that reform can go beyond the economy. Indeed, an empowered and enabled civil society is one of the core objectives laid out in a roadmap of reforms to eradicate forced labour developed by the Cotton Campaign and shared with the Uzbek government.
Uzbekistan’s cotton sector has become something of a bellwether of the speed and success of the government’s reform process. The 2020 cotton harvest will be a real test of the Uzbek government’s ability to eliminate forced labour in the cotton sector, although the use of forced labour is still commonplace in other sectors such as silk and public works.
In order to move forward, it is essential to acknowledge the past, much as President Mirziyoyev did in 2017 when he finally acknowledged the existence of forced labour. By doing so, he was able to lay the groundwork and usher in the changes that are taking place today. The same signals must now be given to civil society to ensure that these reforms result in meaningful changes for ordinary Uzbek citizens and not just a select elite. While it would be premature to encourage brands to return to Uzbekistan while forced labour persists, the potential development of a responsible sourcing framework in which an empowered Uzbek civil society could take up the reins in monitoring workers’ rights might just give brands the assurances they need. That is surely an opportunity the Uzbek government cannot pass up.
Lynn Schweisfurth holds an MA in German Language and Literature from the University of Glasgow and a Masters Degree in Human Rights and Democratisation from the European Inter-University Centre, Venice. She was formerly Director of Development for Human Rights Watch, Germany and is a consultant for Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, based in Berlin;
 Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, The Uzbek Forced Labor System of Cotton Production, April 2017, http://harvestreport.uzbekgermanforum.org/the-issue-at-stake/
 Ibrahim Sirtioglu, New Textile Investments Reduce Uzbekistan Cotton Exports, USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, April 2019, https://apps.fas.usda.gov/newgainapi/api/report/downloadreportbyfilename?filename=Cotton%20and%20Products%20Annual_Tashkent_Uzbekistan%20-%20Republic%20of_4-1-2019.pdf
 Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, “Cotton – it’s not a plant, it’s politics”. The system of forced labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector, January 2013, https://www.uzbekforum.org/cotton-its-not-a-plant-its-politics-the-system-of-forced-labour-in-uzbekistans-cotton-sector/
 See: http://www.cottoncampaign.org/; Pledge Signatories, Responsible Sourcing Network, (continuously updated), https://www.sourcingnetwork.org/cotton-pledge-signatories-complete-list
 Cotton Campaign, Formal Complaint Filed with World Bank Inspection Panel, September 2013, http://www.cottoncampaign.org/formal-complaint-filed-with-the-world-bank-inspection-panel.html
 Address by Shavkat Mirziyoyev at the General Debate of the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly, September 2017, https://gadebate.un.org/sites/default/files/gastatements/72/uz_en.pdf
 In October 2019, Uzbek Forum monitors interviewed hospital staff of the Turtkul District Central Hospital in Karakalpakstan
who had complained about forced labour. Although the Ministry of Labour inspectorate fined the director of the clinic, further hospital staff were sent to pick cotton under threat of penalty.
 Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, “Tashkent’s Reforms Have Not Yet Reached Us” – Unfinished Work in the Fight Against Forced Labor in Uzbekistan’s 2019 Cotton Harvest, June 2020, https://www.uzbekforum.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/UzbekForum-2019-Harvest-Report-Seiten-Mail.pdf
 Uzbek Forum interview with Women’s Committee representative, Pakhtakor district, Jizzakh, October 16, 2019.
 Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, Just Like Old Times: Ministry of Internal Affairs Continues to Meddle in the Lives of Farmers, August 2019, https://www.uzbekforum.org/just-like-old-times-ministry-of-internal-affairs-continues-to-meddle-in-the-lives-of-farmers/
 Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, Spanish-Owned Chemical Company Implicated in Forced Labour with Tragic Consequences, December 2018, https://www.uzbekforum.org/spanish-owned-chemical-company-implicated-in-forced-labour-with-tragic-consequences/
 Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, Farmers’ Land Transferred to Privately-Owned Clusters, May 2019, https://www.uzbekforum.org/vse-izmeneniya-sohraneny-uzbek-farmer-my-land-was-unexpectedly-transferred-to-a-cotton-cluste/
 Ron Synovitz and Sadriddin Ashur, Uzbek Farmers Get ‘Cluster’ Bombed By Reforms, RFE/RL, December 2019, https://www.rferl.org/a/uzbek-farmers-get-cluster-bombed-by-reforms/30328781.html
 The Tashkent Times, Agricultural cluster reform – a failure by design?, December 2019, https://tashkenttimes.uz/economy/4750-agricultural-cluster-reform-a-failure-by-design
 Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska, Uzbekistan seeks end of cotton boycott as virus weighs on economy, AlJazeera, April 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/uzbekistan-seeks-cotton-boycott-virus-weighs-economy-200416074105140.html
 International Labour Organization, Third-party monitoring of child labour and forced labour during the 2019 cotton harvest in Uzbekistan, February 2020, https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_norm/—ipec/documents/publication/wcms_735873.pdf
 Publications Office of the EU, Study on due diligence requirements through the supply chain, April 2020, https://op.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/8ba0a8fd-4c83-11ea-b8b7-01aa75ed71a1/language-en
 Julia K. Hughes and Nate Herman, It’s not Time to End the Uzbek Cotton Boycott Yet, Foreign Policy, May 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/05/28/uzbek-international-cotton-boycott/
 Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, Tricks, Threats and Deception: Registering an NGO in Uzbekistan, March 2020, https://www.uzbekforum.org/tricks-threats-and-deception-registering-an-ngo-in-uzbekistan/
 Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, Human Rights Activists Isolated for 14 Days After Monitoring Cotton Fields, June 2020, https://www.uzbekforum.org/human-rights-activists-isolated-for-14-days-after-monitoring-cotton-fields/
 Cotton Campaign, A Roadmap of Reforms to End State-Sponsored Forced Labor, June 2019, http://www.cottoncampaign.org/a-roadmap-of-reforms-to-end-state-sponsored-forced-labor-in-uzbekistan.html
 Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, Uzbek Farmer: I would be glad to refuse to grow cocoons, June 2018,https://www.uzbekforum.org/uzbek-farmer-i-would-be-glad-to-refuse-to-grow-cocoons/; Uzbek Forum has documented a consistent pattern of officials ordering citizens to undertake forced labor tasks including community maintenance and beautification, street cleaning, wheat harvesting and collection of scrap metal and paper; Solidarity Centre and Uzbek-German Forum, There Is No Work We Haven’t Done: Forced Labor of Public-Sector Employees in Uzbekistan, February 2019, https://www.solidaritycenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Uzbekistan.Forced-Labor-in-Public-Sector-Report.English.1.2019.pdf