Case Study: Uzbekistan Eliminates Systemic Forced Labor in Cotton Harvest
One of the most successful areas of reform for the Republic of Uzbekistan under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has been in the eradication of forced labor in the Uzbekistan cotton harvest. The problem developed over time, after decades of systematic abuses. It became so entrenched, it was tragically difficult or impossible to unwind without disruptive changes.
Mirziyoyev Prioritizes Human Rights
When he was elected in 2016, President Mirziyoyev placed human rights at the top of his reform agenda. Forced labor cut directly against his vision for the country. As he said at the U.N. General Assembly in 2017, the government should work for the people, not the other way around. The proposed solution to the problem was simple in concept but extraordinarily complex in execution: privatize certain state enterprises. Easier said than done.
Five Year “Action Plan” of Reform
Nevertheless, the President and Parliament have since taken determined and deliberate action. These actions have checked the long-standing issue to great effect and in a relatively short period of time. A series of presidential decrees and new laws fundamentally changed the system of cotton production in the country. Private businesses took over key functions that the government formerly provided. International monitoring and reporting have been welcomed, and penalties for violations significantly increased. Today, the practice is not only illegal, it is criminalized, and enforcement is strict. An array of human rights advocates acknowledge that it does not exist institutionally, though they argue for additional measures to stamp out abuses and ensure it does not return.
The History of Forced Labor
To trace the problem back, when the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1992, cotton made up 90 percent of Uzbekistan’s total exports. It accounted for 10 percent of GDP, or gross domestic product. This was a deliberate agricultural strategy adopted by a newly independent nation that had yet to find its way. The program was tightly organized to maximize efficiency and revenues. The state controlled the means of production in the Soviet style. It owned the land, distributed seed, fertilizer, and water. Every shred of the raw Uzbekistan cotton harvest was transported by the government to market and for export.
Unfortunately, the system had its downsides. It forced Uzbekistan to be overly dependent on a single crop. Also, it put a strain on the arable land for a crop that is relatively water intensive in a region where water is scarce. More than that, the export market began to dry up. The western world began to see that the system depended on child labor and forced labor in order to meet target quotas the government set.
“Cotton Clusters” Shift Country To Privatization
The strategy to rip out the old structure in 2017 and replace it with a new one was ingenious, systematic and effective. It began with pilot programs to introduce “cotton clusters” in one small area first, to ensure it worked. Uzbekistan’s cotton cluster concept was a way to privatize the industry. The clusters were groups of individuals, businesses and investors who provide capital and source the means of production to farmers. Instead of relying on the state, farmers negotiated contracts with clusters to buy what they needed to produce cotton.
The first pilot program was effective in 2017. The initiative was expanded to a larger region in 2018. When it worked at a wider scale in 2018, the cotton cluster program was nationalized in 2019. The state was gradually removed from the center of the system. It began to provide an oversight role and ensure enforcement of laws to protect workers’ rights.
UZBEKISTAN COTTON PRODUCTION
ILO Report Shows No Systemic Forced Labor
The most recent report from the International Labour Organization (ILO) a highly respected tripartite agency of the United Nations that was created in 1919 as part of the Treaty of Versailles–confirmed that child labor has been eradicated and systemic forced labor is a thing of the past. The report published at the end of 2019 showed a reduction of 40 percent year-over-year in the use of forced labor in the Uzbekistan cotton harvest. The conclusion of the report demonstrated that forced labor in Uzbekistan is isolated and indiscriminate.
In March of 2020, the government took another major step to eradicate the last vestiges of coercion that still may exist locally. Abolishing quotas and price setting removed a key incentive for forced labor. Moreover, a new law criminalizing the behavior was passed following the 2019 Uzbekistan cotton harvest and was in effect for 2020. International monitors and human rights groups were watching closely to see if violations still existed. Stepped up enforcement and investigations swiftly addressed issues according to the law. In 2020, the government promoted a steep increase to the minimum wage for workers. Wages were more than 6x greater than in 2015. New regulations hold businesses accountable, rather than laborers. The government has also promised transparency and taken steps to open reporting methods for public review.
In addition to eliminating forced labor, the results of the effort have dramatically improved the freedoms of workers, increased their income potential, allowed farmers more control over their businesses, and developed the foundation for a competitive, ethical export product to world markets.
After conducting 9,000 interviews during the 2020 cotton harvest collecting both qualitative and quantitative data in all districts of the country the International Labor Organization found that “systematic child labor has been eradicated and child labor is no longer a major concern.” The ILO also found no evidence of systemic forced labor targeting adults, in fact, the country managed to accelerate the fight against child and forced labor during the 2020 cotton production cycle. An impressive feat considering the challenges faced globally because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2020, the share of cotton pickers that experienced coercion was 33 percent lower than in 2019. The country-wide change over time is dramatic, with forced labor making up 14% of the overall cotton harvest workforce in 2015 dropping to only 4% in 2020. The ILO worked in conjunction with 17 independent civil society monitoring groups, deployed an equal number of men and women to conduct research, and tracked signs of forced labor at every level, including punishment of perpetrators.