The Debate | Opinion | Society | Central Asia

A New Chapter in Uzbekistan’s Cotton Sector?

Despite progress in combating forced labor, Uzbekistan has yet to meaningfully engage in the civil society focused reforms necessary.

By Umida Niyazova for
A New Chapter in Uzbekistan’s Cotton Sector?
Credit: Uzbek Forum

Uzbek Forum’s latest report, “Tashkent’s Reforms Haven Not Yet Reached Us” – Unfinished Work in the Fight Against Forced Labor in Uzbekistan’s 2019 Cotton Harvest, documents both the progress in eradicating forced labor as well as the remaining challenges in Uzbekistan, where President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s much-lauded reform process has so far evaded significant tangible political reform. In 2019, state-set production targets for cotton, which local authorities were responsible for fulfilling, were still in place. Failure to meet these “quotas” risked the threat of penalties such as dismissal or fines. Uzbek Forum monitors collected documents that show the continued involvement of the state in organizing the deployment of employees of state and private enterprises to the cotton fields in 2019. 

A nationwide online survey conducted by RIWI Corp. also confirmed Uzbek Forum’s findings that the threat of penalty and with it, the risk of forced labor, was highest when pickers were recruited by employers or government officials. These findings underscore the need for efficient recruitment channels independent of government interference and the ability of workers to say “no” to picking cotton without menace of a penalty.

The cotton sector in Uzbekistan has always been considered a strategic sector that generates significant revenues for the state. It was also a national symbol of pride and “wealth to the Uzbek people.” To harvest cotton in autumn 2019, Uzbek authorities had to find 1.75 million harvesters. There were no such numbers of voluntary harvesters in the country by the second half of the cotton harvest. This is why the heads of the regions and districts, who carry responsibility for fulfilling state-set cotton production targets, resorted to the forced mobilization of people to pick cotton or pay for someone to pick in their place. Despite a significant reduction in cotton production over the past few years (in 2019 Uzbekistan’s cotton production was 500,000 tons less than in 2015), the eradication of forced labor remains elusive. 

Uzbek Forum for Human Rights (formerly Uzbek-German Forum, UGF) has monitored and reported on child and forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields since 2009. At the time, the largest state-orchestrated mobilization of forced labor in the world was under-reported and of little interest to the outside world, from which Uzbekistan had detached itself during the years of Islam Karimov’s rule. Approximately 1 million schoolchildren, many as young as 11, were collected from school by buses across the country and sent to pick cotton under the blazing sun, exposed to hazardous chemicals for little or no pay. 

Fast forward 10 years and the picture is markedly different: child labor ended in 2014. Some 200,000 students no longer have to give up two months of their studies to pick cotton and the number of adults forced to the fields has dropped significantly too. The exact number of forced laborers is notoriously difficult, if not impossible, to calculate in a sector that requires the involvement of approximately 1.7 million people. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimated that 102,000 people were still forced to pick cotton in the 2019 harvest based on a telephone survey of 6,000 respondents. However, the number is likely to be considerably higher when extortion for payment of replacement pickers and the ability of workers to refuse the “request” of an employer or official to participate in the harvest are taken into account. 

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The privatization of Uzbekistan’s cotton sector began in 2017 and by 2020 the industry should be fully in the hands of private companies operating “clusters” that combine production, processing, and manufacturing of cotton products. In March 2020, the government announced the abolition of state-set quotas as well as pricing, sales, and inputs for the 2020 harvest. This is of major significance and now puts the onus on private operators to ensure adherence to international labor standards. In a country devoid of independent trade unions and NGOs with the resources and capacity to monitor and report on labor rights violations, the question remains as to who will file complaints and administer remedies when companies fail to uphold labor laws.

In spring 2019 upon the request of the Uzbek government, the Cotton Campaign — which has led a boycott of Uzbek cotton supported by 305 international retailers and brands — developed a roadmap of reforms for the eradication of forced labor. The government has been responsive in implementing a number of the recommendations, including criminalizing the use of forced labor for repeat offenders, improving accountability through complaints mechanisms, and raising awareness of the prohibition of child and forced labor. It has not yet, however, addressed the issue of civil society as one of the core objectives in eliminating forced labor. 

Human rights defenders continue to come under threat from the authorities and face harassment in the course of their work. Only one independent human rights organization has been registered since Mirziyoyev came to power in late 2016. Others have had their applications to register repeatedly rejected on spurious grounds. Members of the labor rights initiative group Chiroq, based in Karakalpakstan, were physically prevented from attending a meeting with Cotton Campaign delegates in February this year. Others received threats and, as a result, have since stepped down, too afraid of the consequences. 

More recently, four human rights activists, one of them a monitor for the ILO’s Third-Party Monitoring of the cotton harvest, were apprehend by police while monitoring child labor in the cotton fields of the Pop district in Namangan region. On June 8, the activists were taken to a clinic where they were forcibly tested for COVID-19 and subsequently placed under quarantine in their homes for 14 days. They were put under constant surveillance by police officers and have been warned that they face criminal charges if they violate quarantine rules. One of the defenders was beaten by the police while another was subjected to aggressive behavior by the authorities and is now suffering from high blood pressure.  Despite repeated requests, none of the defenders have to date received the results of their tests. The Pop district where the defenders were apprehended is in a “green” zone where no cases of COVID-19 have been recorded. The defenders had no symptoms or reason to believe they had contracted the virus but were informed by the authorities that they had come into contact with a police officer who was infected. The activists posed no threat to public order while carrying out their work. It appears the incident was designed to intimidate human rights defenders and silence critical voices unless the prosecutor’s office, which has since announced an investigation, comes to another conclusion.

Against this backdrop it is difficult to see how the government intends to offer the assurances international brands and retailers demand in order to begin sourcing Uzbek cotton again and persuade the Cotton Campaign to drop its boycott. The sector has a toxic legacy and it will take more than a few handshakes and well-meant promises to give buyers the confidence that their supply chains will no longer be tainted by forced labor. One important indicator for those companies’ risk analysts is an empowered civil society and independent trade unions that are able to invoke labor rights without risk of reprisal. This will require a departure from an authoritarian tradition ingrained in Uzbek political life. To share power with the common people will surely feel like the deprivation of unquestioned privilege enjoyed by the powerful in Uzbekistan. Despite everything, Uzbekistan is still on a steep learning curve.

Umida Niyazova is former political prisoner and executive director of Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, a Berlin-based NGO working to defend and promote human rights in Uzbekistan.