The Cotton Campaign—a global coalition of human rights, labor, responsible investor and business organizations—yesterday ended its call for a global boycott of Uzbek cotton at an event hosted by the country’s Ministry of Labor for media, activists and government officials in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The announcement came as the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights released a report finding no central-government–imposed forced labor in the 2021 harvest, a success which the Campaign is proposing as a template for removing forced labor from the world’s supply chains. An estimated 2 million children have been removed from child labor and half a million adults from forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector since the multi-sectoral campaign formed.
“[We] have been looking forward to this day for over 14 years,” said Cotton Campaign co-founder and former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Bennett Freeman, who saluted the determination and courage of Uzbek-based activists and cotton-field monitors.
The historic achievement came after persistent engagement by Uzbek activists, who took on extraordinary personal risk to uncover and document forced labor, joined by multinational brands, international advocates and worker rights groups like the Solidarity Center, and a commitment by the government of Uzbekistan to end its use of forced labor. The boycott began in response to a 2009 petition by Uzbek civil-society activists that launched the Cotton Campaign’s Uzbek Cotton Pledge Against Forced Labor. Since then, 331 brands and retailers signed the pledge, including many of the world’s largest brands, among them C&A, Gap Inc. and Tesco.
“As a journalist and citizen of this country, I am proud to participate,” said Uzbek Forum for Human Rights cotton field monitor Muazzam Ibragimova, who added that her own children were likely headed to the cotton fields as recently as a decade ago.
Although Uzbek Forum’s report found that cotton was harvested without systematic state-imposed forced labor, monitors found cases of coercion and interference by local authorities, as well as individual cases of forced labor. Because independent groups that conduct field level monitoring and capacity building are unable to register and operate freely, progress is “at risk” says the Cotton Campaign in its press release. Given repressive policies that limit freedom of association in Uzbekistan and supply chain practices that have contributed to eroding labor standards in garment producing countries around the world, the Cotton Campaign is calling on the Uzbek government and brands to support worker rights as the industry is poised to grow, and for the government to open the country’s civil society to create the enabling environment necessary for responsible sourcing.
“We need a voice from the ground,” said the Solidarity Center Senior Program Officer for Europe and Central Asia Abby McGill, who added that workers must lead the charge if there is to be permanent success and continued progress in Uzbekistan’s fight against forced labor.
Cotton Campaign Steering Committee member, GLI-ILRF Forced Labor Program Director and human rights lawyer Allison Gill recognized the efforts and courage of Uzbek Forum monitors and pointed to the coalition’s success in Uzbekistan as a template for combating the use of forced labor in cotton sourced from other countries. More than one fifth of the world’s cotton is produced in China’s Xinjiang region where significant evidence of human rights abuses, including suspected forced labor, has been reported.
The Cotton Campaign, of which the Solidarity Center is a long-time member, is a global coalition of international human and labor rights NGOs, independent trade unions, brand and retail associations, responsible investor organizations, supply chain transparency groups, and academic partners. The campaign encourages responsible sourcing to ensure that reforms continue to benefit workers, farmers, and civil society.
GLJ–ILRF is a newly merged organization that brings strategic capacity to cross-sectoral work on global value chains and labor migration corridors.
Uzbek Forum for Human Rights is a Berlin-based NGO dedicated to protecting and promoting human rights and strengthening civil society in Uzbekistan.
Cotton bound for global markets from Turkmenistan—the ninth largest producer and seventh largest exporter of the world’s cotton—was again harvested with forced labor last year, finds a new report by the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights and turkmen.news. Students and public-sector employees—including teachers—were systematically forced into the cotton fields in four of Turkmenistan’s five regions during the 2020 fall harvesting season, documents the report.
“The Turkmen government consistently denies the use of forced labor in the country during the cotton harvest despite abundant evidence to the contrary,” says Ruslan Myatiev, turkmen.news editor and human rights defender.
The report documents the forced participation—under threat of dismissal from their jobs or expulsion from their educational institutions—of public-sector employees and high school, vocational and college students. Report findings are based on evidence documented by trained civil society monitors working for the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights in four of the five regions of Turkmenistan: Ahal, Dashoguz, Lebap and Mary. Women are especially vulnerable to forced labor in the country because they comprise most of the public-sector workforce traditionally involved in the cotton harvest, says the report.
Public-sector workers, including teachers, were expected to provide so-called voluntary contributions from their salaries or in personal time worked in the fields, or a replacement worker—often their students—for “successful achievement of the state plan for the cotton harvest,” states “Review of the Use of Forced Labor in Turkmenistan during the 2020 Cotton Harvest.” For example, during the country’s eight-day fall break, starting October 22, all teachers in the schools in the Dashoguz region had to pick cotton or pay for a replacement worker to go to the fields.
Forced labor of teachers, doctors and other public-sector employees is crippling health and education public services, says the report, while extortion of money from such employees is exacerbating citizens’ suffering during the country’s worsening economic crisis in the context of COVID-19-related food shortages and rising prices.
“Together with other members of the Cotton Campaign, the Solidarity Center demands respect for international conventions against forced labor. Nobody should be coerced into working the fields, and those who monitor working conditions in the cotton fields must be free to do so,” says Abby McGill, Solidarity Center senior program officer for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
In Turkmenistan, a Central Asian republic on the northern border of Iran and Afghanistan, cotton cultivation is fully controlled by the state, retaining elements of the planned economy from the Soviet era. It is one of the most closed and repressive states on the planet, currently ranked below North Korea in world freedom scores. The government commits egregious human rights abuses with impunity and there is a total absence of free media. Cotton-sector independent monitors and reporters face ongoing harassment, arbitrary imprisonment, and torture and ill-treatment.
The U.S. State Department ranked Turkmenistan Tier 3, the lowest ranking on its annual Trafficking in Persons report. Cotton from Turkmenistan is on the Labor Department’s list of goods produced with child or forced labor, and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency (CBP) prohibits the import of cotton or cotton products from Turkmenistan.
The Cotton Campaign is a global coalition of human rights, labor, responsible investor and business organizations dedicated to eradicating child and forced labor in cotton production in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The Cotton Campaign’s Turkmen Cotton Pledge, committing signatories to preventing cotton from Turkmenistan produced with forced labor from entering their supply chains, has been signed by 119 major apparel and home goods brands and industry associations.
Uzbek union activist Fakhriddin Tillayev, in prison on a 10-year sentence and subjected to torture for attempting to organize an independent union for day laborers, was released over the weekend.
Tillayev’s release was among the results sought by a Cotton Campaign delegation, now in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital, for unprecedented meetings with government officials, civil society advocates and human rights monitors to discuss the eradication of forced labor. During last fall’s harvest, the Uzbek government forced 336,000 people—including teachers, doctors and students—to work in the country’s cotton fields, picking a crop that generates nearly a quarter of the nation’s GDP, according to an International Labor Organization (ILO) survey. The Cotton Campaign believes the number of those forced to labor is higher.
Tillayev’s release “is a very positive step by the government,” says Solidarity Center Europe and Central Asia Regional Program Director Rudy Porter, who met with Tillayev after his release. Human Rights Watch, the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, Cotton Campaign staff and the Solidarity Center all followed Tillayev’s case closely since his sentencing in 2014 and raised demands for his release in each meeting with the government.
Tillayev and his fellow activist, Nuriddin Jumaniyazov, were falsely accused of human trafficking, tortured and convicted in proceedings that violated fair trial standards. Jumaniyazov, who was sentenced to six years on the same charges as Tillayev, died in prison of complications related to diabetes in December 2016, information that was not made public until June 2017.
Tillayev said he and Jumaniyazov were arrested after they collected membership applications for an independent union from many people looking for day labor at eight markets in Tashkent.
“They had no other work, they needed protection, they needed their own union. The Administrative Court fined each of us 7 million Soum [$875] because we organized an independent union. They banned the independent union. And then they came up with a criminal offense to put us away for good.”
Seeking a Formal Plan to Dismantle State-Sponsored Forced Labor
Cotton Campaign coalition representatives are in Uzbekistan seeking legal and policy reforms to end the mobilization of education and healthcare workers to harvest cotton. They also are calling for an to end the practice of forcing those who refuse to go to the fields to pay for replacement workers.
The delegation seeks a formal plan to dismantle the forced labor system, and an accountability mechanism that allows for secure complaints and legal actions against officials who mobilize citizens. The Cotton Campaign delegation does not include forced labor monitors and will not assess Uzbekistan’s progress toward eliminating forced and child labor in cotton production.
Steve Swerdlow from Human Rights Watch says “one of the biggest developments in Uzbekistan has been the release of political prisoners.” Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
The Cotton Campaign sees these meetings as among “recent encouraging signs that the Uzbek government is willing to talk about the subject of forced labor.” Last week, the government released journalists imprisoned on political grounds.
Noting that Uzbekistan has released 28 political prisoners in the past 20 months, Steve Swerdlow, Human Rights Watch Central Asia researcher, says “one of the biggest developments in Uzbekistan has been the release of political prisoners.” Swerdlow spoke May 14 as part of an Uzbekistan-sponsored press conference in Washington, D.C., to discuss its progress on human rights and prospects for improvement.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev acknowledged forced labor in cotton production in a speech at the United Nations in September, the first time a high-ranking Uzbek government official had done so in a public forum. Mirziyoyev again repudiated forced labor in April when he referenced teachers being mobilized for street cleaning and other “public works.” With its partners in the Cotton Campaign, the Solidarity Center advocates for the complete eradication of forced labor and forced child labor in Uzbekistan.
The World Bank is funding half a billion dollars in agricultural projects linked to forced and child labor in Uzbekistan, said Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF) in a report released today.
Even though the Uzbek government promised the Bank that it would not use forced or child labor linked to the projects or within project areas, and the Bank promised to independently monitor for abuses and create a way for victims to seek redress, in 2015 and 2016 forced labor continued. Under the loan agreements, the Uzbek government is required to comply with laws prohibiting forced and child labor, and the World Bank can suspend the loans if there is credible evidence of violations.
“The World Bank is giving Uzbekistan cover for an abusive labor system in its cotton industry,” said Umida Niyazova, director of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights.
“‘We Can’t Refuse to Pick Cotton’: Forced and Child Labor Linked to World Bank Group Investments in Uzbekistan” details how the Uzbek government forced students, teachers, medical workers, other government employees, private-sector employees, and sometimes children to harvest cotton in 2015 and 2016, as well as to weed the fields and plant cotton in the spring of 2016. An estimated 1 million doctors, teachers, nurses and others are forced by the state to harvest cotton each year in the fall.
The report—based on hundreds of interviews and conversations with victims of forced and child labor, farmers, and key actors in the forced labor system, leaked government documents, and statements by government officials—shows that citizens continued to work in the cotton fields because of government threats of violence, firing, stopping welfare payments and the suspension or expulsion of students.
District Mayor Uktam Kurbanov reportedly said to one picker at a cotton meeting in Khazarasp, Khorezm region on September 29, 2015: “What’s this? You delivered only 1,286 kilograms? Why is that? I’ll tear your head off!”
Said a school director in the Fergana region on September 29, 2016: “I won’t call the complaint line number we were given. There is no use… All these calls [to the hotlines] will result in simple teachers and medical workers losing their jobs.”
Uzbekistan is the fifth largest cotton producer in the world. The country’s cotton industry generates more than $1 billion in annual revenue, or about a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).
The UGF and HRW are members of the Cotton Campaign, as is the Solidarity Center. The campaign works to end the injustice of forced labor in cotton harvesting in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
An Uzbek victim of forced labor in cotton production and three human rights defenders filed a complaint against the World Bank’s private lending arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), according to a coalition of human rights groups.
The June 30 complaint seeks an investigation into forced labor connected to a $40 million loan to Indorama Kokand Textile, which operates in Uzbekistan. The forced labor victim, who requested confidentiality, and the rights defenders Dmitry Tikhonov, Elena Urlaeva and a third who requested confidentiality, presented evidence that the loan to expand the company’s cotton manufacturing facilities in Uzbekistan allows it to profit from forced labor and sell illicit goods.
“The IFC should support sustainable rural development in Uzbekistan, not projects that perpetuate the government’s forced-labor system for cotton production,” says Tikhonov, who lives is in exile in France following possible retaliation—including the burning of his home—for his efforts to document forced labor in Uzbekistan.
“The ombudsman should investigate the IFC loan to Indorama, which we believe violates international law and the IFC’s own policies prohibiting forced labor.” The Cotton Campaign, the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, the International Labor Rights Forum, and Human Rights Watch jointly announced the complaint.
1 Million in Forced Labor Each Year
Each year, the Uzbek government, which controls all of the country’s cotton production and sales, forces more than 1 million teachers, nurses and others to pick cotton for weeks. Last year, the government went to extreme measures—including jailing and physically abusing researchers independently monitoring the process—to cover up its actions.
Uzbekistan was downgraded to the lowest ranking in the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report which was released last month.
The World Bank has invested more than $500 million in Uzbekistan’s agricultural sector. Following a complaint from Uzbek civil society, the bank attached loan covenants stipulating that the loans could be stopped and subject to repayment if forced or child labor was detected in project areas by monitors from the International Labor Organization (ILO), contracted by the World Bank to carry out labor monitoring during the harvest.
The World Bank approved the loan to Indorama in December 2015, despite an ILO report reaffirming the problem of forced labor.
In March, Cotton Campaign, a coalition of labor and human rights groups that includes the Solidarity Center, presented a petition signed by more than 140,000 people from around the world to World Bank President Dr. Jim Yong Kim, calling on the bank to suspend lending to the agriculture sector in Uzbekistan until the Uzbek government changes its policy of forced labor in the cotton industry.
Read the complaint here.