The Situation with Uzbek Cotton: Why the Pledge Remains in Place and a Path Forward
Uzbekistan is a country in transition. In recent years, the Uzbek government eliminated state-sponsored forced child labor in the cotton harvest, and then committed in 2017 to eliminate forced adult labor. The government has made significant progress toward achieving that commitment, including increasing cotton picking wages and enacting measures to abolish government production quotas for cotton.
Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN) and the Cotton Campaign (CC), of which RSN is a founding member, welcome the Uzbek government’s high-level political commitment to end forced labor in the cotton sector, however, the risk of forced labor remains high. Earlier this year, the ILO reported that despite the government’s political commitment and ambitious reform program, significant numbers of pickers worked in conditions of forced labor in the 2019 harvest, approximately 102,000 people representing 5.9% of all pickers in the harvest. Independent NGO monitoring of the 2019 harvest revealed detailed accounts of human rights violations, and continued mobilization of civil servants, bank employees, law enforcement, and military recruits to pick cotton. Uzbekistan lacks independent, fair, and effective recruitment systems, so although cotton clusters and farms have recently been privatized, most recruitment channels are run through the same government-controlled mechanisms as previous harvests. In a survey conducted by Solidarity Center and RIWI Corp, less than half (48.3%) of those who picked cotton in 2019 said they could refuse to do so, demonstrating the crucial need for responsible recruitment mechanisms.
Though the Uzbek government made public commitments to free educators and health care workers from the 2019 harvest, one kindergarten caregiver recounted:
“We did as we were told or we would have been left without our jobs. We did not call the hotline because they [the government] are forcing me to pick cotton and at the same time putting up banners that say forced labor is prohibited!”
In evaluating the key actions and outcomes set out in the CC’s Roadmap of Reforms, it is clear that the Uzbek government has made significant progress toward meeting the first two core objectives: Ending Systemic Forced Labor and Enacting Structural Reform, although work remains. But the government has made far less progress toward the third core objective, Empowering Civil Society. Restrictions on freedom of expression have eased in recent years, with some critics allowed to voice their opinions and concerns about the government on social media on some issues. Significantly, the government has also permitted independent human rights defenders to monitor the harvest in partnership with the ILO and has reduced interference with other independent monitoring. However, the Uzbek government has continued to block independent human rights and labor rights NGOs from registering and has subjected some activists to reprisals, harassment, or interference in their work. Only one independent human rights NGO has been allowed to register in 2020, the first such group registered since 2003, while multiple other applications to form human rights or labor rights organizations were rejected, some repeatedly. In addition, introduction of an updated NGO Code has been delayed, and the draft code has not been made public for feedback or shared with experts although it was promised to members of the Cotton Campaign in early 2020.
Continuation of the Uzbek Cotton Pledge While RSN and the pledge signatories are encouraged by the significant changes that have taken place in Uzbekistan, the work to end forced labor completely remains unfinished, as the 2019 harvest demonstrated. The Uzbek Cotton Pledge -- a commitment not to allow Uzbek cotton in supply chains due to concerns over forced labor signed by over 300 brands and retailers -- states that it will remain in place until the elimination of state imposed forced labor is independently verified by the ILO as well as determined by the Cotton Campaign.
Given the ILO and independent monitoring findings of significant forced labor in the 2019 cotton harvest, the pledge remains in place. This pledge status was agreed-upon in consultation with pledge signatories. After review of the 2020 harvest results, RSN, CC members, and pledge signatories will again evaluate the findings and make a determination about the status of the pledge.
A Path Forward Seeking to recognize the important progress made in Uzbekistan and responding to concerns from the global business community about the need for assurances of no forced labor, the CC has developed a model that would allow producers not using forced labor to access international markets. We are proposing an enforceable and transparent sourcing model equipped with a worker-driven grievance and remediation mechanism; a multi-stakeholder, co-governed board; and an independent monitoring body. No system is yet in place to ensure that cotton is harvested in Uzbekistan free of forced labor since current monitoring does not operate at field level. Thus, there is an emerging need to allow a way for producers not using forced labor to gain access to international buyers, and to provide global brands with confidence they are compliant with international laws.
This is a critical juncture for human rights and the global apparel supply chain; the path chosen by the industry during this time will set permanent precedent for corporate response to labor rights violations across industries and around the world. The CC’s responsible sourcing approach can give global brands assurance they are using only forced-labor-free products if they are purchasing cotton products from Uzbekistan.
Responsible Sourcing Network and the Cotton Campaign invite apparel brands and retailers to work with us to shape a responsible sourcing approach. Contact us at email@example.com to mitigate risks, uphold best practices in supply chains, and contribute to the transformation of Uzbekistan.
For years, Uzbekistan was one of the world’s largest cotton exporters, and the government of Uzbekistan used one of the largest state-orchestrated systems of forced labor to produce it.
Every year the government of Uzbekistan forcibly mobilized over a million citizens to grow and harvest cotton. The Uzbek government forced farmers to grow cotton and deliver production quotas under threats of penalty, including the loss of the lease to farm the land, criminal charges and fines. The government forced over a million citizens to pick cotton and deliver harvest quotas under threat of penalty, including expulsion from school, job loss, and loss of social security benefits.
Forced labor and child labor in the cotton sector of Uzbekistan were unique in the world: it was a wholly state-controlled system, under the direction of a president in power since the end of the Soviet Union, which violated the fundamental rights of millions of Uzbek citizens each year.
Cotton picking is dangerous work. Each year, the forced-labor system of cotton production claimed the lives of several Uzbek citizens, and many forced to pick cotton are exposed to unknown chemicals in the fields, unsanitary housing, and lack of safe drinking water.
Until 2012, the government mobilized schoolchildren age 11-15 on a mass scale to pick cotton, leaving schools throughout much of the country effectively closed during the harvest season as pupils from the fifth grade and older and teachers from all grades worked in the fields. Due to sustained pressure from local and international organizations and foreign governments over many years, the Uzbek government began to shift the demographics of its forced labor policies. Beginning with the 2012 harvest the government of Uzbekistan adopted a policy not to mobilize children younger than 16 on a mass scale. In 2013, the government extended this to first-year college students who are usually 16 years old, but continued the mass mobilization of second- and third-year students. In 2014, only third-year students were mobilized on a mass scale, including, in many cases, 17 year olds. Thousands of children were still sent to the fields in at least three regions in 2014, where local officials mobilized them in order to avoid stiff penalties for failing to meet production targets.
In 2015 and 2016, the government of Uzbekistan forced more than a million people, including students, teachers, doctors, nurses, and employees of government agencies and private businesses to the cotton fields, against their will and under threat of penalty, especially losing their jobs.
The government of Uzbekistan increased the use of forced adult labor, apparently to compensate for fewer children. Massive mobilization of teachers, doctors, nurses and other adults to the cotton harvest has degraded education and health services. It also led to widespread extortion of individuals and businesses, with officials demanding contributions individuals and businesses, including multinational enterprises.
Profits of the Uzbek cotton sector supported only the inner circle of Uzbek government. Uzbek farmers were forced to meet state-established cotton quotas, purchase inputs from one state-owned enterprise, and sell the cotton to a state-owned enterprise at artificially low prices. The system trapped farmers in poverty, and the state profits from sales to global buyers. The profits disappeared into a secret fund to which only the highest level officials have access, known as the Selkhozfond.
Uzbek cotton ends up in brand-name retail and apparel supply chains and therefore on consumers, even though citizens of Uzbekistan have called for an international boycott of cotton from Uzbekistan, and over 300 global brands have pledged to avoid while forced and child labor continues.
The government of Uzbekistan has harassed, arbitrarily detained, and interfered with Uzbek citizens who conducted independent monitoring of labor abuses or called for accountability.