Civil society campaigning achieves forced labour victory in Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan has recently been declared free from systemic child labour and forced labour in its cotton industry. This is a major accomplishment for civil society, which has campaigned for 17 years to reverse a repressive and exploitative system that each year trapped millions of Uzbeks in work to process the country’s cotton harvest. The change demonstrates the power of long-term campaigning that deployed a comprehensive suite of advocacy tactics, including a boycott campaign, and further demonstrates the invaluable role of civil society in protecting and promoting human rights.
According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), Uzbekistan’s cotton production is now free from child labour and forced labour. Millions of Uzbek people have been liberated from the annual misery of being forced to work to gather the country’s cotton harvest. Years of civil society campaigning lie behind this change.
A history of repression
Uzbekistan is one of the world’s largest producers of cotton and its economy is heavily reliant on the cash crop. To process its abundant harvest, the government for years relied on a system of forced labour in which children and adults from across Uzbekistan were systemically drafted to handpick cotton.
At peak, it’s estimated that as many as two million children were removed from school for two to three months each year and made to participate in the harvest. Around half a million adults were also affected as teachers, doctors and other professionals were routinely forced out of their jobs and into the cotton fields. They operated under harsh conditions – the harvest began in late summer when temperatures are high and continued until the onset of winter – with little or no pay. Workers were given daily quotas and often subjected to threats and physical abuse if they failed to meet them.
The state persisted with this practice despite the fact that it violated both domestic law and international commitments it had previously signed or ratified, including a series of ILO conventions.
Enter the Cotton Campaign
Civil society refused to let the government of Uzbekistan get away with its harsh practices. Advocacy groups worked tirelessly for years, using the full range of campaigning tactics to achieve change.
Leading the way was the Cotton Campaign, an alliance of human rights groups, trade unions and business associations coordinated and hosted by Global Labour Justice – International Labour Rights Forum. The campaign was established in 2007 to promote decent work in the cotton industries of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
We have learned that advocacy for labour and human rights is a marathon, not a sprint. There is power in collective action and commitment by broad coalitions united with a purpose, which is what makes it possible to make progress even on seemingly intractable problems.
But the campaign faced a key challenge: both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have closed civic space. Since gaining independence following the fall of the Soviet Union, both countries have been run by authoritarian presidents – often the same presidents for long stretches of time, sanctioned through fake elections. Dissent is ruthlessly repressed, and independent, rights-based civil society has never been allowed to take root. To overcome this, international level organising and action proved crucial.
The campaign adopted an array of political, legal and economic tools to pursue change, including engaging directly with the Uzbek government and key international organisations to remind the government of its obligations and win international support for reform. One of the most successful strategies was the call for an international boycott of Uzbek cotton, which won widespread support.
Doubts were initially cast on the feasibility of this strategy due to the opaque nature of the supply chain, which made it difficult to identify where Uzbekistan cotton was being used. But despite these challenges, the boycott proved to be immensely successful. By the end, 331 brands and retailers had signed the Uzbek Cotton Pledge and joined the boycott.
Voices from the frontline: Allison Gill
Allison Gill is a human rights lawyer and Forced Labour Director at the Global Labour Justice – International Labour Rights Forum, the organisation that coordinates the Cotton Campaign.
The 2021 harvest was the first in which we did not observe state-imposed forced labour since our frontline partner, the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, started conducting annual independent monitoring 11 years ago. This crucial development followed several years of steady progress in the implementation of legal and policy changes that our campaign advocated for, including reforming the forced labour system, imposing liability for the use of forced labour and raising payments to cotton pickers to attract voluntary labour, and raising awareness among the population of the forced labour ban.
A key advocacy tool is the Uzbek Cotton Pledge, a commitment by more than 330 brands and retailers not to use Uzbek cotton in their supply chains until forced labour has been eliminated. We formalised the Pledge after companies began to adopt sourcing policies to exclude Uzbek cotton and Uzbek activists called for an international boycott in 2009.
We launched complaints against the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation’s investments in the Uzbek cotton sector. We advocated with the US government, the European Union and its member states, the ILO and the United Nations, using specific policy mechanisms to bring pressure on the government of Uzbekistan to end forced labour. We also have advocated with the government directly, including by issuing a Roadmap of Reforms at the government’s request.
We have remained convinced of the importance of centring our campaigning around the demands of affected workers and civil society and the need to be guided by independent monitoring and reporting. And we have learned that advocacy for labour and human rights is a marathon, not a sprint. There is power in collective action and commitment by broad coalitions united with a purpose, which is what makes it possible to make progress even on seemingly intractable problems.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Alison. Read the full interview here.
Civil society makes an impact
The boycott had a direct impact. In 2006, Uzbekistan was the world’s sixth largest cotton exporter, responsible for around 20 per cent of global production. Since then, production and trade trended downwards, and while several factors contributed to this, the global boycott of Uzbek cotton undoubtedly played a major role.
Among the brands that participated in the action were Levi Strauss, Marks and Spencer and Nike, along with many others. In response to international pressure and the threat the boycott represented for the industry, conditions gradually improved. The government increased wages for voluntary cotton pickers, mechanised more of the harvest and brought forward a bill to criminalise forced labour.
By 2020, the ILO found that child labour was no longer used for cotton picking and the vast majority of adult cotton pickers who participated in the harvest did so voluntarily. In March 2022, the Ministry of Labour announced that Uzbekistan’s cotton supply chain was totally free from child and forced labour.
On 10 March 2022, the Cotton Campaign officially announced an end to its call for a global boycott of Uzbek cotton. This is a success – but challenges remain.
The Uzbek Forum for Human Rights has found that while cotton is now being harvested without forced labour systematically imposed by the state, there are still instances of coercion and interference by the authorities and isolated cases of forced labour. In a world of cheap, disposable fashion, there remain problems higher up the supply chain, where the pressure on suppliers of raw materials from manufacturers and retailers to compete by dragging down labour standards to offer the lowest possible prices is as intense as ever. Globally, the lack of transparency of supply chains continues to hamper civil society action.
In Uzbekistan, a major remaining problem is its closed civic space, which prevents independent trade unions and other groups that seek to monitor and document labour practices from registering and operating freely. And across the border in Turkmenistan, the authoritarian government still systematically uses forced labour. Civil society may celebrate its hard-earned victory – but it will then get back to work.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The Uzbek government must continue to support measures to ensure the end of forced labour and support workers’ rights in the cotton industry.
The Uzbek government must facilitate and cultivate an open civic space to enable civil society organisations, including independent trade unions, to play their full range of roles, including monitoring labour rights.
International brands must work to improve supply chain processes, working with suppliers and labour organisations to develop a responsible model based on transparency and fair purchasing practices.
Cover photo by Chris Shervey/CC BY 2.0