De jure, slavery is illegal in every country on Earth. De facto, however, modern slavery exists in many forms, such as human trafficking or forced marriage. One easily-overlooked form of modern slavery is the system of forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest. The cotton industry has always been at the center of Uzbekistan’s economy, but state-set quotas that have governed it since the early days of the Soviet Union began to encourage forced labor. Local officials’ careers hinged on meeting these quotas, and to do so they would commonly force Uzbek citizens to labor in the cotton fields, whether they were students as young as 11 or career professionals like doctors, interrupting their lives for little or no pay. Often the coercion is framed as khashar, or a patriotic Uzbek tradition of volunteer work, not modern slavery. More than a million people were forced to work the 2016 cotton harvest, exposing them to potentially dangerous agricultural chemicals, unsafe drinking water, and unsanitary housing. Every year several Uzbek laborers die. But there is some good news: after nearly a century of forced labor this cruel system is beginning to change.
In 2016, Uzbekistan’s long-ruling strongman president Islam Karimov died and his successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, instead of continuing the authoritarian governance of Karimov, announced a program of liberalizing reforms. Along with releasing political prisoners and easing media restrictions, his government made efforts to end the widespread forced labor associated with the cotton harvest. These efforts have been substantial and seen real success. Mirziyoyev signed a decree ending the national quota system at the root of forced labor in Uzbekistan. In particularly rural areas local governments and activists have worked together to teach Uzbeks their rights and how to exercise them. A ban on recruiting students, teachers, or health workers has worked. “[S]ystemic child labour is no longer used during the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan,” said the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 2019. In the 2019 harvest, cotton pickers reported more enforcement of anti-forced labor laws and better working conditions. In light of all these improvements, the ILO encouragingly concluded that “systematic forced labour did not occur” in Uzbekistan in 2019.
However, no systematic forced labor crucially doesn’t mean no forced labor at all. That very same ILO report found that 102,000 forced laborers still took part in that harvest. Serious issues with the Uzbek cotton industry still need to be addressed. However, there have been solutions proposed to address them: the Cotton Campaign has released a detailed series of goals and actions for the Uzbek government. This extensive roadmap has three core objectives: “end systemic forced labor,” “enact structural reforms,” and “empower civil society.” Many of the specific goals under the first two objectives have been met, such as ending the central government’s quota system. Reforms strengthening civil society, however, have been found wanting.
Even with that central hurdle identified, it’s not obvious what the next step forward for Uzbekistan should be. A substantial 2007 boycott, organized by the Cotton Campaign against Uzbek cotton, is still in effect and its role is increasingly debated. While the Company Pledge Against Forced Labor in the Cotton Sector of Uzbekistan, which has over 300 signatories, including companies like Adidas, Calvin Klein, and Patagonia, was instrumental in encouraging reforms thus far, its role going forward is fiercely contested. Is it now a hurdle preventing the Uzbek cotton industry from fully modernizing, or is it still a useful motivator for Uzbek officials, especially on civil society issues?
Some observers of the industry, such as Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, founder of the think tank Bourse & Bazaar, and Oybek Shaykhov, general secretary of the Europe-Uzbekistan Association for Economic Cooperation, acknowledge the distance that Uzbekistan still has to go to fully eliminate forced labor in its cotton harvest, but believe that the time has come to end the international boycott. They say that, while the boycott was instrumental in reaching this point, it’s now stifling the economic growth that the modernizing and privatizing industry needs. The rapidly-changing and diversifying industry is lacking in foreign investment and must sell its exports at relatively low prices to China or other countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States, a Russia-dominated bloc of post-soviet states. Advocates of ending the boycott argue that this could hinder the industry’s growth to the extent that Uzbekistan would lose enthusiasm for additional, much-needed reforms. A comparable phenomenon has been seen in neighboring Kazakhstan, where sluggish privatization drives have stifled the momentum behind reforms. The risk of continuing the boycott is only compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, which, public health risks aside, has seriously hurt the Uzbek economy. This prompted Minister of Employment and Labor Relations Nozim Khusanov to pen an open letter to the Cotton Campaign asking, in light of the progress already made, to end the boycott in order to help Uzbekistan respond to the economic fallout of COVID-19. In the view of people like Khusanov, Uzbekistan is on the right track, and the boycott is just slowing them down.
On the other hand, those that support continuing the boycott, such as Uzbek Forum for Human Rights Executive Director Umida Niyazova, argue that the Uzbek government needs continued pressure upon it. While Mirziyoyev’s reforms have made a serious difference in the cotton harvest’s reliance on forced labor, they still have further to go. Specifically, proponents of the boycott point to the weak institutions of Uzbekistan’s civil society, which even opponents concede are lacking. With the government ending the much-maligned quota system and stepping back from the harvest, private companies are increasingly responsible for ensuring labor standards are followed, but Uzbekistan lacks labor unions or NGOs that could hold companies accountable. Applications for registering human rights organizations have been met with specious rejections. The human rights activists that do work in Uzbekistan are hardly treated kindly by authorities. In one dramatic incident, a group of activists was forcibly quarantined for possible COVID infection. None of them had symptoms, they had no contact with an individual they knew or suspected to be infected, and they were in a region with no reported COVID cases. Allegedly they had interacted with an infected police officer, but intimidation stemming from the country’s entrenched history of authoritarianism seems a more likely explanation. While Uzbekistan has implemented many reforms under President Mirziyoyev, perhaps it hasn’t left its history of authoritarianism completely behind. Could the boycott pressure the government to allow and foster the growth of a vibrant and free civil society, and consequently guard more effectively against forced labor in its cotton harvest?
Uzbekistan’s cotton industry has clearly made enormous strides in the past few years, taking concrete steps to end an entrenched, decades-long history of forced labor. 40% fewer people forced to work the harvest between 2018 and 2019 is no mean feat, and, although the change in leadership from Karimov to Mirziyoyev was not insignificant, it’s hard to deny that the international boycott played a substantial role in that human rights accomplishment. But what is the international community’s role in today’s fast-changing Uzbekistan? Should they be investors facilitating a transition in the cotton industry or should they be outside providers of continued pressure upon the government to reform and strengthen civil society? These are questions that must be considered with care lest Uzbekistan backslide on the very real progress it has already made. The lessons learned here could inform how the international community responds to liberalizing and reforming nations in Central Asia and elsewhere for years to come.
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