The U.S. Department of Labor has stricken cotton from Uzbekistan off its annual list of goods produced by child labor or forced labor.
It was the only line item to be removed from the 2022 edition, which saw 32 additions, including garments from Bangladesh and garments and textiles from Pakistan, as the ongoing geopolitical turmoil, coupled with the aftershocks of the Covid-19 pandemic, continues to push modern slavery to record levels worldwide. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that the number of children toiling in labor has risen to 20 million, an increase of 8.4 million over the past four years.
“The release of this year’s reports and tools comes at a critical time,” Thea Lee, deputy undersecretary for international affairs, said at the report’s launch on Wednesday. “Global estimates show, millions continue to toil in abusive labor conditions. They work in homes, mines or fields or factories, where labor inspectors rarely visit, often at the bottom end of global supply chains. We have to hold companies that put profits over labor rights accountable. And we have to make sure that governments are upholding their end of the bargain to protect workers with strong labor laws and enforcement that meet international standards.”
The latest findings, which are required by the 2005 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, span 131 countries and territories. Of those, Lee said, nine made “significant advancement” in their efforts to tackle child labor in 2021. For the first time, this cohort included Uzbekistan, which until recently was part of a decade-long Cotton Campaign-led boycott for its state-sanctioned use of child and forced labor in the cotton fields.
Other cotton producers still on the list include Argentina, Azerbaijan, Benin, Burkina Faso, China, India, Mali, Pakistan and Turkmenistan.
The Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB) first listed the world’s sixth-largest cotton producer in its inaugural version of the list in 2009, citing what it described as “qualitative and quantitative evidence of both forced labor and child labor in the sector.” In 2018, after carrying out research that indicated child labor was no longer present at a “significant level,” ILAB excised cotton produced by child labor from the country’s listing, though not the broader indictment of forced labor.
When reports from the ILO and non-governmental organizations declared that state-sponsored forced labor had all but been eliminated from Uzbekistan’s cotton industry, except in isolated cases, ILAB did some more digging, including desk research and interviews with government, civil-society and sectoral representatives.
“As a result of this work, ILAB determined that the cotton sector has undergone significant changes, beginning in 2017 with the new Mirziyoyev regime aiming to reform Uzbekistan’s economy and position the country as a destination for foreign business and foreign investment,” the report said.
While the Uzbek government has sought to pursue mechanization to reduce the demand for workers in the sector, the reduction of forced labor is “almost exclusively” the result of “concerted government efforts to eliminate forced labor by removing quotas and implementing new policies that prohibit and punish the use of coercion in worker recruitment,” it said, noting that the ILO observed for the first time in 2021 the involvement of the government, trade unions and employers in the establishment of a cotton-harvest minimum wage. The 2021 harvest was also the first to see collective bargaining taking place at a grassroots level without government interference.
“A key finding in the Uzbekistan case is that government interventions, supported and verified by international stakeholders, have caused a significant reduction of forced labor in the cotton sector, though some cases may remain,” ILAB said. “These cases, however, are likely isolated, and the government has demonstrated capacity, through enforcement and referral mechanisms, to quickly respond to any new cases that may arise. Government efforts, community awareness and sectoral change have come together to make tremendous progress in reducing forced labor and creating better conditions for workers while encouraging economic growth.”
The report added that it will “be important” to keep track of this progress in future harvests and ensure that civil society and unions continue to play an independent role in monitoring conditions.
Allison Gill, forced labor program director at Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights, a member of the Cotton Campaign, said that while removing Uzbek cotton from the Department of Labor’s list is an “important recognition” of the elimination of systemic, state-imposed forced and child labor in Uzbekistan, it does not “simply give a green light to buyers; it’s more like a yellow light.”
“Buyers need to assess the human rights risks that remain and ensure they are addressed,” Gill told Sourcing Journal. “Key risks we have identified are the lack of independent, credible monitoring, grievance and remedy mechanisms for workers at any stage of production, including field level, as well as serious restrictions on association, expression and assembly, and the lack of independent trade unions. That’s why we have called on the government to remove restrictions to the enabling environment for labor rights and also why the Cotton Campaign is working to implement an innovative pilot program with Uzbek producers, workers, and international brands to ensure labor rights are respected in the whole cotton supply chain.”
Elsewhere the challenge of quashing child and forced labor continues. There is evidence, for instance, that children ages 5 to 14 help weave textiles in Ghana, where they’re exposed to chemicals used to process and dye materials, cotton and other organic dust, musculoskeletal stresses and noise. In Pakistan, a 2018 government survey estimates that 45,699 children are involved in textile production. Across the way in India, workers in spinning mills in the state of Tamil Nadu are often recruited using deception about working conditions and wages, ILAB said. Sources also indicate that workers face excessive and involuntary overtime, debt bondage, restrictions on movement and withheld identity records.
In neighboring Bangladesh, the report said, multiple surveys have reported that workers in the ready-made garment industry experience forced overtime, wage theft and oppressive working hours beyond what is legally allowed.
“Furthermore, supervisors commonly subjected workers to violence and harassment for not meeting production targets,” it added. “Women are often victims of physical and sexual abuse, including as punishment for not meeting targets. Considering all these factors, the reality is that the RMG sector has workers who are involuntarily working under threat or menace of a penalty.”
To companies sourcing materials and products in modern-slavery hotspots, Lee recommended downloading ILAB’s Sweat & Toil and Comply Chain apps and diving into its Better Trade resource and new knowledge portal. Together, she said, they can help “identify and put in place real-world due-diligence best practices that address child labor and forced labor, from prioritizing high-risk areas of your supply chains to establishing robust grievance mechanisms.”
“So here is your call to action,” she said. “Use these powerful tools and information to expose these issues and start demanding that governments and businesses acknowledge these challenges and take concrete action. We hope you will keep exploiting exposing labor exploitation and bringing it out of the shadows.”