Activist coalitions, state-sanctioned forced labour, and top-down reform in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector

While activist coalitions have forced the end of state-sanctioned forced labour in Uzbekistan, the rise of the private sector and continued undermining of political and social rights may mean exploitation in the cotton sector persists.

In 2019, after the global exposé of state-sanctioned forced labour in post-Soviet Uzbekistan, the Economist praised Uzbekistan as “a place that abolished slavery”. Global attention to the repression and incarceration of millions of Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang region has led to Uzbekistan being described as a model to follow, or a possible substitute for China in the cotton supply sector. Despite the official abolition of state-sanctioned forced labour, many instances remain and the broader terrain of labour and civil rights and living conditions remain in question. This blog underlines the role of activism in spurring change, but examines how the contemporary situation in the Uzbek cotton sector regarding the role of the state and sweeping privatisation may engender continuities of poverty and a lack of freedom of association for cotton farmers and rural communities.

Activism against child and forced labour in Uzbekistan dates back to 2005, when NGOs International Crisis Group and Environmental Justice Foundation published reports on state-sanctioned use of forced and child labour in the cotton sector. The Cotton Campaign, a coalition of NGOs, academics, investors, industry, and trade unions, was founded in 2007 to spearhead the consolidating movement campaigning for better conditions for cotton harvesters. In 2009, a number of Uzbek activists, wrote a letter to international stakeholders on the World Day Against Child Labour, denouncing systemic exploitation organised directly by the central government which saw children removed from education, separated from their families and sent to pick cotton in fields.

Photo by EVGENIY KONEV on Unsplash

The movement was crucially informed by affected Uzbek communities who provided credible primary information, and benefited from effective engagement with international stakeholder groups, which were key to their later successes. International pressure on the Uzbek government led to the outlawing of child labour in the country in 2014, resulting in no children being mobilised for the cotton harvest that year. In 2017, at the United Nations General Assembly, the newly appointed Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev acknowledged the problem of forced labour and committed to end state-mandated forced-labour in the cotton harvest. However, poverty-related child labour persists in other sectors.

An important role was played by the coalition of hundreds of companies involved in the cotton supply chain, including Adidas, Nike, H&M and Zara among others, who, formalised by the Cotton Campaign, signed the Company Pledge Against Forced Labour in the Cotton Sector of Uzbekistan committing “to not knowingly source Uzbek cotton […] until the Government of Uzbekistan ends the practice of forced labour in its cotton sector”. Given the feeble role of institutions such as the International Labour Organisation or the World Bank, whose supposedly independent investigations on forced labour were often disrupted by government involvement, local and international activism was key to applying the relevant pressure to achieve reform.

The case of state-mandated forced labour in Uzbekistan complicates standard narratives of exploitation in global supply chains. Research has explored the role of large corporate business models in perpetuating forced labour in supply chains, so their role as allies of activists in the form of a boycott should give pause for thought. The prevalence of forced labour in the garment sector and the role of irresponsible purchasing practices by corporations that drive demand for labour abuse sits uneasily with this new-found role as advocates of workers’ rights.

In fact, it was likely to have been relatively easy for retailing corporations to commit to ‘boycott’ cotton from Uzbekistan, a comparatively small player in the global economy, and from whom corporations were not directly sourcing due to networks of subcontracted supplier firms that make up garment supply chains. Yet, cotton produced in Uzbekistan could well have been making its way into the finished products sold to consumers by those same corporations due to a lack of supply chain traceability. Caution should be exercised, therefore, in praising their actions, when the broader structures of exploitation perpetuated through supply chains and their business models remain largely untouched.

The role of the private sector is growing in Uzbek cotton due to rapid privatisation, part of an array of sweeping liberal economic reforms under President Mirziyoyev and backed by the International Finance Corporation and the World Bank. The reforms have been framed as conducive to ridding the sector of forced labour through encouraging private investment in higher value-added production activities such as textile and garment manufacturing, supported by corporate social responsibility programmes. Not only does the poor track record of multinational corporations providing worker protections suggest otherwise, but the privatisation programme has also led to a wave of state-sanctioned land-grabs whereby private companies have acquired land, previously long-leased to farmers by the government, to combine cotton production with processing operations in ‘cotton textile clusters’. Farmers are either coerced to produce as contractors for corporations or are being dispossessed of their land entirely by threat and force – but this is framed by government officials as “voluntary” land release, leaving farmers without access to compensation.

Furthermore, concerns remain about the extent to which a marked reduction in forced labour and the end of its systematic usage by the Uzbek government is really demonstrative of a concerted and prolonged improvement in the conditions and rights of workers. The Uzbek Forum found that despite positive changes, child labour has increased due to school closures and poverty during the COVID-19 pandemic and new vulnerabilities are emerging among farmers and workers.

Activists are continuing to campaign for better conditions and outcomes for rural communities in Uzbekistan, and an end to state-sanctioned forced labour in Turkmenistan and Xinjiang, but this global effort does not and should not stop with state-sanctioned forced labour. Campaigning continues to apply pressure on corporations but also empower workers to build enabling environments for corporate accountability for labour abuse in many contexts worldwide. While some positive top-down reform has been pursued, the Uzbek state and corporations continue to dominate the regulation of work while civil rights and liberties remain repressed, the fulfilment of which are crucial to broader and structural reform. This repression makes global activism all the more necessary to push powerful actors to concede something to those who are not afforded the access to rights to fight for their own demands domestically.

With thanks to Allison Gill, Senior Cotton Campaign Coordinator for ILRF-GLJ and former Senior Research and Policy Advisor to the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, for reading and commenting on an earlier draft of this blog. The work of the Cotton Campaign is ongoing.

Tomorrow: in the next blog in the series Freda Forrest looks at how Hong Kong citizens are finding new ways to express their political opinions under the current very repressive atmosphere.

This is the third part of a new blog series by members of SPERI’s Doctoral Researcher Network that is exploring how different types and forms of social contestation are shaping the global economy. Read all of the blogs in the series so far here.