Uzbek cotton farmers are celebrating the lifting of a 13-year-old international boycott of their product following a finding that the cautiously reform-minded government is no longer using organized forced labor to harvest the economically vital crop.
The decision will open the door to long-closed markets for one of the world’s biggest cotton producers, including major American clothing retailers such as Amazon, Gap, J.Crew, Target and Walmart.
The U.S.-based Cotton Campaign, a coalition of more than 300 businesses and organizations, initiated the boycott in 2009. At that time, it said, the Uzbek authorities were “forcing over 1 million children and adults, including medical staff, public sector employees and students, to pick cotton every year during the harvest.”
The boycott ended after the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, a Cotton Campaign partner, reported this spring that it found “no systemic or systematic, government-imposed forced labor during the cotton harvest” in 2021.
Despite the Uzbek Forum’s finding of discrete incidents of forced labor in several regions, the Cotton Campaign said, “This historic achievement comes after years of persistent engagement by Uzbek activists, international advocates and multinational brands, together with a commitment by the government of Uzbekistan to end its use of forced labor.”
The campaign now urges end users to conduct human rights due diligence at all stages of production — at cotton farms, spinners, fabric mills and manufacturing units — and ensure to have “credible, independent mechanisms in place for forced labor prevention, monitoring, grievance and remedy.”
The Cotton Campaign also fights state-sponsored forced labor in Turkmenistan, which it defines as “one of the most closed and repressive countries in the world.”
It says the authoritarian government there every year “forces tens of thousands of public sector workers to pick cotton in hazardous and unsanitary conditions and extorts money from public employees to pay harvest expenses.”
Jonas Astrup, the International Labor Organization technical adviser in Tashkent, told VOA that freeing Uzbek cotton “from systemic forced and child labor is a political victory for the country.”
“They did not get rid of the boycott to please the international community but for Uzbekistan itself. Responsibility and accountability ultimately lie with the Uzbek people for how and whether they trust the system and how and whether the government can deliver for its citizens,” he said. “But it’s time to seize economic benefits of job creation, economic growth, attracting trade and investment to the country.”
Astrup said the biggest root cause of forced labor “was the state quota system for cotton production and official complicity in it. That has been changed but will take time, of course. But the system of production quotas for provinces, districts and farmers has gone away, and this is really the key.”
The ILO has been monitoring child labor in Uzbekistan since 2013 and forced labor since 2015. It has a network of 17 independent civil society activists, including former political prisoners, who will continue to use tested tools and methodology.
“We have helped inspections grow from 200 to 400 labor inspectors. They are now issuing an annual report with data that is useful for policy and business decisions. They have the mandate to issue fines, investigate violations and submit cases for criminal prosecution,” Astrup said.
Astrup sees the end of the boycott as especially timely as Uzbekistan weathers the impact of sanctions on Russia, a key trading partner.
“We can help Uzbekistan credibly develop its textile and garment industry and give assurance to international brands and retailers that they can start placing orders,” he said.
Astrup added that the ILO and its partners will establish a Better Work Uzbekistan program, focusing on social dialogue mechanisms at factories and cotton-textile clusters, including collective bargaining and bringing employers and workers to the table with government to promote reforms.
Human rights advocates, meanwhile, are calling on the Uzbek government to accelerate reforms and adhere to its international obligations.
Speaking in Tashkent, Bennett Freeman, a Cotton Campaign co-founder and former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, said Uzbekistan’s next challenge is “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.”
Hugh Williamson, director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division, said Tashkent must lift restrictions on activists and NGOs “to enable them to monitor forced labor and ensure this terrible abuse does not return.”
Tanzila Narbayeva, Uzbekistan’s Senate chair who has led efforts to end forced and child labor, admits the country still faces enormous problems.
“Ensuring human rights and freedom, specifically labor rights, is one of the priorities in our development strategy,” Narbayeva told VOA.
“First, we will strengthen our legal basis, synchronizing our laws with international standards. We will continue reforming agriculture and must also develop our institutions, including a solid monitoring system to base policy on reliable data and research,” she said.
Narbayeva said Tashkent hears international calls for an independent civil society. She said the government is processing registration applications and conducting a discourse with nongovernmental groups.
“We want a pro-active civil society which closely works with relevant international organizations. There will be grants for NGOs, funding for anti-forced labor advocacy and promoting rights in the workplace,” she said.