In Uzbekistan’s 2021 cotton harvest, the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, which has monitored the annual cotton harvest for child and forced labor violations found, for the first time in nearly a dozen years, “no systemic or systematic, government-imposed forced labor during the cotton harvest.”
Following the forum’s report, on March 10, 2022, the Cotton Campaign called for the global boycott of Uzbek cotton to be lifted, opening the door for the 331 brands and retailers that had pledged not to source Uzbek cotton to reengage with the Uzbek cotton sector.
“After encouraging hundreds of companies to avoid Uzbek cotton over the past 12 years, we’re happy to announce the time has come to lift the Uzbek Cotton Pledge,” Patricia Jurewicz, CEO of the Responsible Sourcing Network and a Cotton Campaign co-founder said in the group’s press release.
The Uzbek government had increasingly pushed for the lifting of the boycott in recent years, even eliciting the support of former political prisoners in 2019 to make the case that significant progress had been made in eliminating forced labor.
That year the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs provided official notification that Uzbek cotton was to be removed from a list of products produced with child labor. It remained on the Labor Department’s list of goods produced with forced labor or child labor, a broader category. Meanwhile, the International Labor Organization, in its report on the 2018 harvest, noted that “Forced labour during the  harvest was reduced by 48 percent compared to 2017.”
By 2020, the Uzbek government and activists were exchanging public letters that underscored the seismic shift that had occurred since the 2016 death of Uzbek President Islam Karimov. Uzbek officials pointed to President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s strong messaging regarding forced labor and continued engagement with activists and monitors. Tashkent also stressed the economic importance of lifting the boycott, claiming doing so would help address unemployment and other issues.
In 2020 members of the Cotton Campaign told The Diplomat that it had become easier for the two sides to meaningfully engage in recent years:
In the last year or two, [Allison] Gill [of the Cotton Campaign] told The Diplomat, it has become easier for the two sides to talk to each other. Rather than staking out their opposed positions, there’s “a real exchange of views that feels like it’s moving toward outcomes.”
“We have really found a way to really listen to each other and talk to each other and actually be able to contribute constructively,” she said.
It seems all that talking has finally yielded the results both sides were striving toward: the elimination of systemic forced labor and the opening of the Uzbek cotton sector to the world’s apparel brands again.
While monitors found some cases of coercion, and continue to warn of excessive government involvement in the cotton industry, the Uzbek Forum nevertheless said in its latest report that “Uzbekistan has demonstrated that it is able to harvest cotton almost entirely without coercion.” The report cites an increase in wages and tangible government communication about forced labor as contributing to the elimination of forced labor. For example, although some local government officials and mahalla councils were overly involved in recruitment of cotton pickers, presenting risks of coercion, the “Labor Inspectorate was responsive to all cases of forced labor identified through hotlines, in the media and social media, or by civil society partners, and promptly investigated.” Put more simply: Individual local leaders may still behave poorly, but the government writ large is responsive to complaints.
While the forum says that Uzbekistan remains a “high risk” environment, “Uzbekistan presents a unique opportunity for both producers and buyers to build a new kind of cotton supply chain, one that allows for full transparency and traceability, and in which all actors participate in ensuring the protection of labor rights.”
There’s more work to be done, particularly when it comes to labor rights and trade unions, but the lifting of the Cotton Pledge illustrates that progress can be made and as such rewarded. The Cotton Campaign, in its press release, urged brands interested in engaging with the Uzbek cotton sector to continue to do their own due diligence.
Arguably, in the dozen years Uzbek cotton has been subject to a boycott by many brands, the expectations of consumers (and thus the companies trying to woo them) have shifted. It may take some time and additional effort for Uzbek cotton to shake the history of forced labor and additional work to bring labor practices up to current international standards, but the door is open now.
“We commend President Mirziyoyev’s leadership in initiating and implementing the historic reforms necessary to end state-imposed forced labor and reform Uzbekistan’s cotton sector,” Bennett Freeman, a Cotton Campaign co-founder and former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor said in the Cotton Campaign’s press release. “Now we challenge the Government of Uzbekistan to open space for civil society and to create the enabling environment essential for responsible sourcing that will attract global brands and protect labor and human rights.”