Success & Failures in Eradicating Forced Labor in Uzbekistan

Image credits: Sydney Kim

LOS ANGELES — The death of a ruthless dictator. A landmark presidential decree. A human rights campaign spanning decades. The unwavering persistence of local civil society. An international boycott. 

This is what it took to effectively eradicate systematic forced labor in Uzbekistan. And still, remnants of the old system persist.

In the field of human rights work, success stories are few and far between. The decades of dedication, hard work and undying perseverance of human rights defenders, therefore, makes each rare instance all the more remarkable. With cautious optimism, the case of forced labor in the Uzbek cotton harvest now earns its label as a human rights “success story” of its time. 

Tracing the practice back to the Soviet Era, forced cotton picking in Uzbekistan finds its origins in cotton production quotas under the 1920s Gosplan system. Although thirty years have passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its ill-fated economic policies, the practice of forced labor which fueled decades of human rights abuses and rested on the fulfillment of a cotton quota continued well into the 21st century. 

The Uzbek cotton harvest, involving over 2 million laborers as the main source of employment, is the world’s largest seasonal labor mobilization. At its height, under the former president and long-standing dictator of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov, who died in 2016, the practice of forced labor involved millions of people being forced to pick cotton against their will under abusive conditions, including children.

Professor Steve Swerdlow, a human rights lawyer who teaches in the University of Southern California’s Department of Political Science and International Relations, has closely monitored Uzbekistan’s human rights record and the cotton issue for years. He described the process in an interview with Glimpse from the Globe. “Several million citizens would be mobilized roughly between the months of August and November every year to harvest what many called Uzbekistan’s ‘white gold’,” he stated. “Cotton, as a raw material for an economy that needed cash, was a very important commodity.”

Under the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan’s cotton accounted for 70 percent of irrigated land under cultivation in the republic and for more than two-thirds of the total cotton production in the USSR. Cotton became such a valuable cash crop for the Kremlin that intense agricultural practices led to the drying of the Aral Sea, one of the worst ecological disasters in the world. 

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Karimov recognized cotton as an important source of revenue for Uzbekistan. He continued adhering to Moscow’s heavily state-run economic system, creating annual cotton quotas which fueled the practice of forced and child labor. “For many, many years it was an important source of revenue for Karimov’s often closed and isolated economic system,” Swerdlow explains, “It played an important role in propping up a dictatorship.”

The human cost of this lucrative Karimov-era practice was steep. 

“The way it worked under Karimov,” Swerdlow details, “is that local officials from what are called ‘mahallas’ [neighborhood committees], assisted by the police, would go from door to door to ensure that every family was contributing to the cotton harvest. They would pressure citizens, even single mothers, vulnerable citizens, people who were ill, the elderly, to sacrifice their time and participate in this mobilization for several months out of the year.”

Living conditions were abysmal, workers’ rights nonexistent, wages alarmingly low and compensation frequently withheld. Workers faced abusive conditions picking cotton. Students were often pulled out from schools and universities to participate in the harvest, and foreign journalists, NGOs and local civil society were ruthlessly suppressed, leaving no room for outside scrutiny. As the human rights violations amassed, Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest in the Karimov period remained “one of the only examples in the world where a government was controlling, coordinating, mobilizing and organizing the forced labor from start to finish,” said Swerdlow.

In 2007, in response to the decades of systemic forced labor and human rights abuses in Uzbekistan, activists across a number of sectors formed the Cotton Campaign. The Cotton Campaign, where Swerdlow acted as a representative for Human Rights Watch from 2010 to 2019, works with governments, local civil society, companies and foreign investors to advocate for Uzbek rights and address the issue of forced cotton picking. Since its formation, the efforts of the campaign, in conjunction with ongoing international diplomatic efforts, have seen significant outcomes.

The first major accomplishment of the global effort to eradicate forced labor in Uzbekistan came in 2014, when it succeeded in exerting enough pressure on the Uzbek government to allow the International Labor Organization (ILO) into the country to monitor the cotton harvest — a feat all the more significant when considering it took place during the period of Karimov’s brutal regime. Since the end of the Karimov era, marked by his death in 2016, systematic child labor effectively ended within a few years of the ILO’s monitoring. Each subsequent year, due to the ILO’s extensive monitoring and fieldwork, the government dramatically reduced adult forced labor by increasing wages and ensuring compensation. 

Currently, Professor Swerdlow is working alongside human rights defenders in Uzbekistan to evaluate the outcomes of the 2021 cotton harvest. He outlines the results of his monitoring. 

As of late 2021, the “reporting, research and monitoring [by human rights defenders]leads to the conclusion that forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector is no longer systematic. That is, the system in which central government officials forced people to pick cotton against their will no longer exists.” The ILO corroborates this claim in a 2020 report, concluding that “systematic forced labour did not occur” and “child labour is no longer used during the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan.” The end  of systematic forced labor in the Uzbek cotton harvest marks a major victory for the human rights community. 

This movement’s success — including diplomatic missions, the formation of an international campaign and the work of the ILO — was not without the cooperation of the private sector. The campaign spearheaded efforts to enact an international boycott on Uzbek cotton, a pledge to which over 300 brand-name retailers became signatories. 

By committing to not source Uzbek cotton, a source of revenue upon which Uzbekistan’s state-run economy is heavily dependent, the business sector played a huge role in forcing the government’s hand on the issue. Notably, the cotton pledge remains in place to this day, continuing to cripple the economy amidst ongoing efforts to address human rights concerns — leverage over the Uzbek government that the Cotton Campaign seems unwilling to lose.

The Uzbek government, the role of which can be characterized as twofold, further contributed to the initial success of the campaign. 

Firstly, the death of Islam Karimov in 2016 and the subsequent rise in power of Shakvat Mirziyoyev marked a drastic shift in Uzbekistan’s political climate as the nearly thirty-year reign of a brutal dictator came to a sudden end. Although the deeply-rooted authoritarian legacy of the post-Soviet Era remains ingrained in Uzbekistan’s institutions, Mirziyoyev’s reform-oriented agenda has facilitated huge strides forward in the country’s human rights situation. Since his rise to power, Mirziyoyev has issued several presidential decrees aimed at addressing child and forced labor practices in the country, culminating in a landmark 2020 decree which saw the complete abolition of the state-sanctioned cotton quota — the main driver of forced labor in the Uzbek cotton harvest.

Mirziyoyev’s commitment to bettering Uzbekistan’s global image, transforming the economy through privatization and opening the country to foreign investment by defrosting the isolated Karimov-era status quo have been instrumental in furthering the effort to end forced labor. 

The political will shown by the Uzbek government in recent years to cooperate with some human rights defenders on the issue has been instrumental to the effort’s success. “In the Uzbek case, there was a critical mass of government officials who were willing to adapt and recognize that the criticism of their record had to be addressed,” Swerdlow recounts. 

Officials like Senate Chairwoman Tanzila Narbaeva, an advocate for reform, and President Mirziyoyev have been key in ensuring government cooperation with global efforts and diplomatic missions by the United States, EU and other partners. In December 2021, for instance, exiled human rights activist and prominent Uzbek voice Umida Niyazova made an important visit to Uzbekistan, where she met directly with the Minister of Labor to discuss reforms in the cotton sector. 

“While there’s an adversarial relationship with governments, you also have to be ready for dialogue. This is one of those really interesting examples where the government changed its position.” According to Professor Swerdlow, the case of Uzbekistan speaks to the need for flexibility in any human rights campaign. “There may come a time when the government that you’ve been fighting for ten years says, ‘we’re ready to talk.’”

Moreover, Swerdlow emphasizes the importance of empowering civil society in any human rights campaign, pointing to its instrumental role in ensuring Uzbek workers’ rights are protected moving forward. 

“The Uzbekistan model provides some lessons in terms of the use of creative tactics, and always giving voice to civil society first.” The Cotton Campaign similarly highlights the role of “an independent, vibrant, and diverse civil society” in “ensuring the success of the reform process,” and the need for local monitoring of the cotton harvest by international and local groups without interference.

However, while the global movement to eradicate forced labor in Uzbekistan has been largely successful, significant obstacles remain. Although systematic, state-sanctioned forced labor has come to an end, instances of forced labor and human rights violations in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields continue to be documented. Mirziyoyev’s reforms have seen Uzbekistan through a transition from a state-run economy (a remnant of the Soviet era) to one that is more privatized and market-based. However, these reforms have given rise to new challenges in human rights work. 

The Uzbek government has “transitioned to a new model known as the cluster system, where private manufacturers and farmers group together in private entities, and essentially privatize the sector,” Swerdlow explains. “But there are still many aspects of the system that human rights activists point to as continuing some of the abuses of the past. Some of the key problems are rooted in the lack of independent feedback or complaint mechanisms that workers could use to raise concerns about the conditions in the fields, their contracts or other issues. The legal basis upon which workers are contracted requires more regulation and safe working conditions that comply with the international labor conventions Uzbekistan has signed need to be implemented.”

Another important concern is the lack of independent unions and absence of collective bargaining to protect workers’ rights. For instance, Uzbekistan’s first independent labor union, Halq Birligi, was founded in March 2021 by laborers in the Indorama Agro cotton farm. Within a week, members of the union were already facing harassment, threats and demands to disband by local authorities. 

Moreover, Swerdlow reports, “Some of the current obstacles relate to how workers’ rights and the conditions of their labor are protected in the fields, from their access to healthcare, proper protective clothing, and sanitary conditions.” Instances of wages being withheld by farmers and picker leaders and disputes over the amount of cotton collected are also regularly reported. As such, protection of workers’ rights is one of the central challenges associated with the emergence of the cluster system — challenges that can only be effectively addressed if Uzbekistan’s civil society is empowered to address them.” 

Another challenge is the legacy of authoritarianism that still lingers in Uzbekistan. Uzbek security services continue to exercise an outsized influence just as they did during the Soviet and Karimov eras, preventing local human rights organizations from obtaining registration with the Ministry of Justice that would allow them to monitor the cotton harvest. The Ministry of Justice has denied registration to numerous independent civil society and volunteer groups, limiting their ability to monitor the cotton harvest and thus strengthen the sector overall.

“Fear of police and a general reluctance to complain against powerful authority figures present major obstacles for workers’ rights,” Swerdlow explains. When there is no democracy and no meaningful civil society engagement, giving voice to the victims of this abusive system becomes an even more daunting task.

The empowerment of civil society, registration of NGOs and unionization remain major obstacles in the movement to completely eradicate forced labor in Uzbekistan. 

However, challenges also emerged in the process of the human rights work that went behind this movement. Professor Swerdlow reflects on some of the insights gained from his work with the Cotton Campaign. 

“No matter the human rights issue at stake, coalitions are a messy business. Human rights work is never linear. It takes blood, sweat and tears to form successful coalitions. In the effort to end forced labor in Uzbekistan, while centered in Uzbekistan’s civil society, the coalition encompassed actors from vastly different sectors and there were certainly moments when conflicting priorities would emerge, and some companies were more proactive than others in joining the effort.”

Ultimately, however, success in ending forced labor would never have been possible without the collective efforts of civil society actors, the business sector, government officials and diplomats alike. 

“This is not only a story about international actors,” Swerdlow concludes. “By far, the heroes of this story are the workers and the local human rights defenders themselves, who risked a great deal to speak truth to power. In so doing, they changed Uzbekistan’s trajectory forever in a positive direction” 

The case of Uzbekistan holds important lessons for human rights work globally. As a success story, the movement to eradicate forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector highlights the power of coalitions and international cooperation in addressing the challenges of our time — none of which would have been possible without the involvement of all the actors involved. 

Already, the successful effort to end forced labor in Uzbekistan has lent momentum to efforts to a parallel project to eliminate forced and child labor practices in Turkmenistan, where ruthless, totalitarian, authorities have maintained one of the world’s most repressive systems for decades, even in comparison to Uzbekistan at the height of the Karimov’s rule. Takeaways from the human rights work in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector are also relevant to the situation in Xinjiang, where hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in China are forced to work in deplorable conditions, subject to gross human rights violations, and to exploitative labor practices in West Africa and Thailand

Uzbekistan illustrates the importance of engaging multiple actors in addressing  complex human rights challenges. In this case, the combined efforts of local civil society with the Cotton Campaign, diplomatic missions, the ILO, the business sector and Uzbek officials were instrumental to this success. 

One can only hope that the “success story” of Uzbekistan will be not an anomaly, but the first of many more to come. 

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Mane Berikyan

Mane Berikyan is a Deans Scholar freshman majoring in International Relations and minoring in Russian Area Studies on the pre-law track. On campus, Mane is a fellow at the Global Policy Institute, a student worker at the Institute of Armenian Studies, and is involved in the Society for Women in Law, Trojan Review, and Armenian Students Association. Outside of USC, she currently serves as the Membership Director for the non-profit organization Armenian Engineers & Scientists of America. Her areas of interest include international human rights law, foreign affairs and national security as it pertains to the post-Soviet states and the Middle East.

berikyan@usc.edu