VICTORIA, British Columbia – In March 2022, the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of NGOs, businesses and trade unions, confirmed that the 2021 cotton harvest in Uzbekistan was free of forced and child labor. An International Labor Organization (ILO) report also confirmed that 99% of Uzbek laborers in the 2021 cotton harvest participated voluntarily. The reduction of child labor in Uzbekistan is a massive success for international labor rights.
Uzbekistan is a land-locked Central Asian country whose economy has grown by an average of 8% in the past decade. The largest driver of Uzbekistan’s economy is the agriculture sector, which represented 17.5% of the GDP and employed an estimated 15 million people in 2015. The dominant crop produced in Uzbekistan is cotton. Uzbekistan is the sixth-largest producer of cotton globally and in 2008 the crop represented 40% of the country’s export earnings.
Yet, despite the country’s economic growth and vast employment in the agricultural sector, the rural poverty rate was above the regional average in 2015 at 13.7%, according to IFAD.
Forced and Child Labor in Uzbekistan
Up until recently, Uzbekistan’s cotton industry was notorious for being the largest state-sponsored forced and child labor operation in the world, according to Human Rights Watch. Every autumn, the government of Uzbekistan systematically coerced vast numbers of public and private sector workers along with college students and children to harvest cotton and fulfill annual production quotas. The local neighborhood council threatened workers with the loss of welfare benefits, job loss and wage reductions if they did not participate. Similarly, it threatened college students with academic punishments like expulsion if they did not go to the fields and pick cotton. Impoverished rural communities were especially vulnerable to forced labor, given that they could not afford to lose welfare benefits or employment.
The most prominent victims of the cotton harvest were children, often pulled from school for two to three months out of the year to work in the cotton fields. The state forced children to work long hours in grueling conditions and received little to no pay for their work. They often faced physical abuse and other punishments if they did not meet their daily quotas. Typically children had to live away from home and living conditions in the cotton fields were abysmal, as water supply, food supply and accommodations were often inadequate.
The Soviet central government centralized and controlled the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan. After gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Uzbekistan’s agricultural sector remained highly corrupt and unreformed. While Soviet collective farms were nominally privatized, in practice, the government maintained Soviet-style control over cotton production. This gave the state the power to dictate cotton production quotas for farmers. It prohibited farmers from selling cotton to anyone but the government and risked losing their land if they refused to grow cotton. Additionally, the state-controlled wages, the price of inputs and the price of cotton. Thus, to obtain maximum export revenue, the state would set cotton prices well below the market level. This left farmers and workers with little to show for their labor.
The Road to Reform
The Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, an NGO based in Uzbekistan, has been leading the charge against forced and child labor in the country. Activists working for the Uzbek Forum have been conducting interviews and reports in the Uzbek cotton fields at great risk to themselves and their livelihoods, according to Human Rights Watch. Activists monitoring the cotton fields often faced threats of job loss, arrest and harassment at the hands of local authorities. Yet, the reports that the Uzbek Forum published ultimately led to the Cotton Coalition and the pledge by 330 companies to boycott Uzbek cotton, Human Rights Watch reports. The work of these activists in bringing international attention to forced and child labor in Uzbekistan put pressure on the Uzbek government to end the practice.
The election of President Mirziyoyev in 2016 proved to be a major step in ending forced and child labor and creating a more equitable agricultural sector in Uzbekistan. In 2017 President Mirziyoyev introduced cotton clusters as a way for the state to gradually relinquish control of cotton production. The cotton clusters comprised private businesses and investors who negotiated prices for inputs and cotton with farmers. After proven successes at the regional level, the government nationalized the cotton cluster program in 2019. Not only did the cotton clusters increase competition in the agricultural sector, but they also allowed farmers to gain more control over their operations.
In 2020, the Uzbekistan government took a further step to end forced and child labor. The state abolished quotas and price setting. This eliminated the economic incentive for forced and child labor, according to Changing Uzbekistan. Additionally, in 2020 a new law came into effect which criminalized forced labor and as a result, the state increased its investigation and enforcement efforts into violations of the law. Finally, in 2020 the government increased the minimum wage sixfold from what it was in 2016. The combined effect of these reforms has drastically improved workers’ rights in Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan’s reforms to eliminate forced and child labor is a major victory for labor rights in the country. The ability of workers to exercise their rights is a crucial step in reducing rural poverty in Uzbekistan. While it still needs much more work to ensure more equitable labor practices, the Uzbek government deserves much credit for implementing critical reforms.
– Kaitlyn DeWeerd