For close to a hundred years, forced labor has been a problem in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector, ever since the Soviet Union put a production quota system in place for cotton in the 1920s. Since that time, Uzbekistan has relied on the help (willing or unwilling) of an average of two million citizens to meet these production quotas each year, the results of which account for about 15% of total exports from the country. Before 2010, forced laborers included hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren above the age of 11 (who could spend upwards of two months of their school year in the fields) in addition to public workers, including teachers, medical workers, firefighters, law enforcement, bank employees, and military recruits. These public workers could lose their jobs or benefits if they refuse to help with the harvest, and farmers could lose their land, as decided by local authorities and state officials. These officials’ career prospects were generally determined by the success of their region in surpassing cotton production targets.
Although these unethical practices were overlooked while under Soviet control, international scrutiny has mounted in the years since 2000. This scrutiny has culminated in the formation of the Cotton Campaign in 2007, which created the Uzbek Cotton Pledge, an international boycott of cotton from Uzbekistan currently upheld by more than 300 brands and retailers, such as Amazon, Adidas, Macy’s, and Ikea. Although the boycott has been effective thus far at forcing the Uzbek government to make changes, the problem of forced labor has not been fully fixed. A way must be found to lift the boycott soon, or else it could leave a lasting negative impact on Uzbekistan’s cotton sector.
Due to a combination of international pressure and the boycott of cotton quickly gaining traction, Uzbekistan’s first step in changing the cotton harvest was to gradually phase out child labor between 2012 and 2014. This action greatly helped with the problem of child labor, but did little to help with the problem of forced labor in general; in each of the following two harvests, one million people were still forced to pick cotton. Then, in 2017, Uzbekistan committed to eliminate all forced labor and privatize the cotton sector. Early in 2019, the Uzbek government asked the Cotton Campaign to create a path forward by suggesting various policy changes that could help decrease forced labor. Some of these, like increased accountability and the criminalization of forced labor, were adopted, and by the 2019 harvest, the estimated number of forced laborers was down to about 100,000 people, 5.9% of the total. Finally, by 2020 the sector had been completely privatized, and in March 2020, the quota system was eliminated, thus negating the main reason for forced labor.
Some argue that this is enough progress to warrant the end of the Uzbek cotton boycott. Because of the boycott, Uzbekistan is forced to sell most of its cotton to China at relatively low margins, causing about a billion dollars per year of potential revenue to be lost, which is close to 2% of Uzbekistan’s GDP. With this additional money, it would be easier to pay cotton workers, creating a greater natural incentive for farmers to grow cotton and workers to pick it. The privatization of the sector has meant more freedom for farmers, and as a result of decreased revenue from cotton because of the boycott, farmers have switched to other crops, causing cotton production in Uzbekistan to drop by 50% since 2015. A similar situation occurred in Kazakhstan, where the country was unable to meet international demands for privatization, and lost much of its drive for change after being abandoned by international investors for too long.
However, this argument does not address the more drastic downsides a premature end to the boycott could have. Although an end to the boycott would aid Uzbekistan, it could stagnate progress, which could very easily trigger a relapse into similar habits of decades past; labor laws may have changed in recent years in Uzbekistan, but old habits die hard. In place of cotton quotas, there were informal “production targets” in some regions during the 2020 harvest, which functioned similarly. Many farmers made contracts with local authorities to produce a certain amount of cotton, which farmers could be penalized for not fulfilling, and some local authorities still have the power to tell people to pick cotton or pay to have someone pick in their place. According to one Uzbek police officer, “We aren’t supposed to call this ‘forced labor’ anymore, so now we call it mandatory help for the harvest.”
In order to lift the boycott soon, then, it may be necessary to determine the ethicality of Uzbek cotton on a farm-by-farm basis, an idea that has occurred to the Cotton Campaign, but not one that has yet been put in action; as of this past harvest, it is still very difficult to survey cotton production field by field, due to non-compliant law enforcement. Only two independent human rights organizations have been registered in Uzbekistan since 2003, and in 2020, representatives from other human rights organizations were still harassed and threatened by police, and in at least one instance, forcibly tested for COVID-19 and quarantined for two weeks in a region with no active cases.
The next logical step is to shift the sentiment of law enforcement, whether by encouraging the Uzbek government to register more human rights organizations, or by establishing more means of holding law enforcement accountable. Either way, the boycott must remain in place for the near future, but it is urgent that the Cotton Campaign use its leverage to continue talks with the Uzbek government. Uzbek cotton can then return to Western markets as soon as possible, thereby ensuring a much needed regrowth of Uzbekistan’s cotton sector that will be beneficial for all involved, customers, farmers, and workers alike.