The government of Uzbekistan remains one of the only governments in the world that subjects its citizens to forced labor through the implementation of state policy. The Cotton Campaign has demanded the Uzbek government end forced labor and advocated to governments, international institutions and the private sector to use their leverage with the Uzbek government to end the practice. Despite advocacy successes, the Uzbek people continue to suffer under the state forced labor system, because the Uzbek government is addicted to its total control over unreported national income from cotton sales.
Tragic living history
The Soviet Union established a cotton monoculture in Uzbekistan to support industry in the USSR, desiccating the Aral Sea to less than 50% of its area and less than 1/3 of its volume in two decades. Since independence in 1991, the authoritarian Uzbek government of President Islam Karimov has further exploited the nation to produce cotton for the enrichment of the elite. Every year the government of Uzbekistan forcibly mobilizes over a million children, teachers, public servants and private sector employees for the manual planting and harvesting of cotton. The Uzbek government forces farmers to grow cotton and children and adults to harvest cotton under threat of punishment, including loss of the lease to farm the land, criminal charges, verbal and physical abuse, expulsion from school, and dismissal from work. Authorities harass and detain Uzbek activists seeking to monitor the situation. The use of forced labor to prepare fields and harvest cotton violates the labor laws of Uzbekistan and international laws ratified by the Uzbek government, in particular International Labor Organization Conventions No. 105 on the Abolition of Forced Labour and No. 182 on the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour.
Global fight for freedom
The Cotton Campaign is a global coalition of trade unions, human rights NGOs, socially responsible investors, and business associations coalesced to end forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector. We report the voices of Uzbek victims of forced labor: www.cottoncampaign.org/reports, and due to our advocacy around the world, governments, international organizations and the private sector have taken action:
- Over 130 apparel brands have pledged to avoid Uzbek cotton.
- Leading global companies Nike, H&M, Ikea, C&A, Jones Apparel and Michael Kors pushed Daewoo International out of their supply chains in protest of the South Korean company’s support for the forced-labor system as the largest cotton manufacturer in Uzbekistan.
- Daewoo International and Indorama Corporation, two of the largest manufacturers of Uzbek cotton in Uzbekistan, are currently under federal investigation for alleged violations of U.S. law prohibiting a company from importing into the United States any product made with forced labor.
- BNP Paribas suspended “any type of financing of cotton from a country in Central Asia on the grounds that the country in question used forced labour during the picking season.”
- The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development National Contact Point of France stated trade in Uzbek cotton harvested using forced child labor violates the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.
- The International Trade Union Confederation and International Organisation of Employers have together urged the Uzbek government to end forced labor of children and adults for nearly a decade through the International Labour Organization, representing the only case on which international employers and workers representatives have worked together in recent years.
- The European Parliament voted 603 to 8 not to extend the EU-Uzbekistan Partnership and Cooperation Agreement to trade in cotton and textiles.
- The South Korean National Assembly commissioned an investigation of South Korean companies’ human rights impacts in Uzbekistan, and the investigators reported complicity by South Korean companies Daewoo and Global KOMSCO Daewoo in forced labor in the cotton sector.
- The United States Trade Representative reviewed Uzbekistan’s eligibility for trade preferences in 2012 and 2013, under the US Generalized System of Preferences eligibility requirement that the government afford workers internationally recognized worker rights.
- The United States placed Uzbekistan in the lowest category, tier 3, in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report in 2013 and 2014. Tier 3 is reserved for governments that do not comply with minimum standards to combat human trafficking and fail to take adequate steps to address the problem, and it carries the possibility of sanctions.
- World Bank Inspection Panel investigated the World Bank's Second Rural Enterprise Support Project (RESP II) and concluded that the plausible link between bank financing for the agricultural sector and the perpetuation of forced labor raises serious policy compliance issues.
- The United Nations International Labour Organization, Committee Against Torture, and Committee on the Rights of the Child have reported serious concern about forced labor of children and adults in Uzbekistan.
- After a decade of global pressure, in 2013 the Uzbek government reduced the number of children under age 16 forced to pick cotton and accepted monitoring by the International Labour Organization. The ILO observed the forced labor problem. The Uzbek Government’s actions demonstrated its ability to change practices unilaterally, reminding us that forced labor and child labor in the Uzbek cotton sector are state policy, not the result of poverty or other forms of exploitation.
In 2013, the Uzbek Government again forced farmers to produce cotton according to state-imposed production quotas under threat of losing their lease to farm the land and criminal charges. Authorities forced children, mostly aged 16 to 17, and adults — teachers, doctors, nurses, civil servant and private sector employees — to work in the cotton fields under threat of punishment, including verbal abuse and physical abuse, expulsion from school, dismissal from work, and loss of salary, pension and welfare benefits. At least eleven Uzbek citizens died in 2013 as a result of the forced-labor cotton production system, ranging in ages from 6-year old Amirbek Rakhmatov to 63-year old Tursunali Sadikov. Authorities harassed, intimidated and detained Uzbek human rights defenders who attempted to monitor the harvest. Public officials also demanded and accepted payments in return for exemptions from forced labor, fostering corruption throughout the country.
In 2012 and 2013, the Uzbek Government shifted the burden of the harvest from children under age 16 who worked the whole harvest, to older children and adults, often working rotating shifts, thereby increasing the number of people forced to work. Since that shift, we estimate the number of people forced to pick cotton increased from more than 1 million in previous years to as many as 5 million in the 2013 harvest [see methodology here]. That is 16% of Uzbekistan’s population and twice the International Labor Organization’s world-wide estimate of persons subjected to state-sponsored forced labor in 2012.
This year the Uzbek Government has already imposed the annual production quotas on farmers, forced citizens to weed and prepare the cotton fields, and teachers to sign up to work the harvest or resign.
The Impacts: Poverty, Social Degradation and Repression of Civil Rights
The Uzbek Government has absolute control over the purchasing and sales of cotton, wheat and silk, as well as the inputs to grow these products. From cotton alone, the government earns at least $1billion USD annually. The official national budget does not account for income from sales of these products; instead, it goes to the opaque, extra-budgetary “Selkozfond” in the Finance Ministry, to which only the highest level government officials have access and knowledge of its use. Therefore, these funds cannot be used for improvements of the agriculture sector, infrastructure or social purposes such as education. Farmers are not able to earn enough to hire free laborers for the harvest or invest in modernization.
The Uzbek Government has sent doctors, nurses, and other staff of hospitals and clinics from around the country to harvest cotton, making it difficult for people to receive medical care. Students not sent to the cotton harvest were crammed into larger-than-normal classes, or miss subjects, because their teachers were sent to pick cotton. The cost of this missing workforce is estimated to be more than $200 million annually, not accounting for the costs of lost school hours for high-school-aged and university students or farmers’ debts.
The Uzbek Government does not permit independent organizing and represses civil society and the press. The Federation of Trade Unions of Uzbekistan (FTUU) is led by a member of the Uzbek cabinet, and workers have reported that FTUU representatives help mobilize them to the cotton harvest. The Farmers Association functions on behalf of local administrations to ensure fulfillment of state-imposed production targets. Since 2005, the Uzbek government has partially recognized one independent civil-society organization, “Ezgulik”, yet continues to harass and imprison its staff. The Uzbek government prevents media from operating in the country. For example, Muhammad Bekzhanov, who was a pioneer in the effort to document and report about the Government’s forced labor system and other human rights abuses, has spent 15 years in prison and is currently the world’s longest imprisoned journalist. For his sacrifice, Reporters Without Borders honored Mr. Bekzhanov with its Press Freedom Prize in 2013.
The Uzbek government can end forced labor with reforms of the root causes, including:
- Instruct government official and citizens acting on behalf of the government not to coerce anyone to pick cotton and prosecute anyone who does;
- Ensure farmers can recruit labor by setting the price for raw cotton to exceed production costs, including labor; setting minimum wages for work in the cotton sector sufficiently high to attract voluntary labor; and publicly advertising on behalf of farmers to recruit unemployed citizens to work the harvest;
- Permit unfettered access for the ILO to monitor for the use of forced and child labor during the upcoming harvest and to conduct a survey of the application of ILO Convention No. 105 on the Abolition of Forced Labour throughout the Uzbek economy, with the participation of the International Organisation of Employers, International Trade Union Confederation and International Union of Food Workers; and
- Allow independent human rights organizations, activists and journalists to investigate and report on conditions in the cotton production sector without facing retaliation.
- Establish and implement time-bound reforms of the cotton sector, including reporting all state expenditures and revenues from the cotton sector in national accounts that are provided to the Uzbek Supreme Assembly (Oliy Majlis), ending the practice of re-allocating agricultural lands as a penalty against farmers who do not fulfill cotton quotas, replacing quotas with incentives, and de-monopolizing agriculture input markets and sales markets.