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Uzbek Cotton Now ‘Free’ of Child and Forced Labor, ILO Says

In a rare bright spot for a supply chain plagued by human-rights abuses, cotton in Uzbekistan, once synonymous with modern-day slavery, is now “free” of child and forced labor, the United Nations’ labor agency said Tuesday.

Writing ahead of its forthcoming report, the International Labour Organization said that roughly 2 million children and half a million adults have been removed from coerced labor since the Uzbek government began addressing the systematic conscription of teachers, students, doctors, engineers and others to grow and harvest cotton.

The agency, which has been monitoring the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan under an agreement with the World Bank since 2015, based its findings on 11,000 interviews with cotton pickers, 99 percent of whom worked voluntarily during the 2021 cotton harvest. The ILO estimated that one in eight people of working age in Uzbekistan participated in what it dubbed the “world’s largest recruitment effort.” Sixty-two percent of pickers were women, and the vast majority hailed from rural areas. All provinces and districts had very few or no forced labor cases, it added.

“Our collaboration has yielded good results—because, after seven years, this year’s report shows that Uzbek cotton is free from systemic child labor and systemic forced labor,” ILO director-general Guy Ryder said in a statement. “There is now an opportunity for Uzbekistan to realize its goal of moving up the value chain and to create millions of decent full-time jobs in textile and garment manufacturing.”

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Uzbekistan’s record isn’t spotless, however. About 1 percent of respondents said they faced direct or perceived forms of coercion from local community representatives and employers regarding social benefits, employment or wages.

Even so, this is a stark improvement from more than a decade ago, when rampant reports of state-sponsored exploitation drove more than 300 North American and European brands, from Adidas to Zara, to boycott Uzbek cotton through the global coalition known as the Cotton Campaign, whose members include Anti-Slavery International, Human Rights Watch and the Responsible Sourcing Network. As a result, demand for Uzbek cotton crashed from 50 percent of the country’s exports to less than 1 percent, prompting a top-down overhaul of the sector.

“We undertook these reforms to benefit our people and our economy. The starting point was to abolish the state order system for cotton production but we didn’t stop there,” said Tanzila Narbaeva, chair of the Uzbek Senate and head of the National Commission to Combat Forced Labour and Human Trafficking. “We worked tirelessly to change thinking and behavior through awareness-raising campaigns on labor rights. We criminalized child labor and forced labor. We enhanced our labor inspection and we engaged in dialogue with civil society to identify common ground and solutions.”

The majority of the cotton pickers the ILO interviewed said that working conditions, including transportation, food, access to water and hygienic facilities, have improved since 2020, with only 5 percent saying they had it worse than the previous year. For the first time, the minimum wage involved not only consultations with the government but also with trade unions and employers.

“We also observed an emerging trend of collective bargaining at the grass-root level,” said Jonas Astrup, chief technical advisor of the ILO Third-Party Monitoring Project in Uzbekistan, noting a growing momentum toward a democratization of the Uzbek labor market. “Cotton pickers would engage in informal wage negotiations with farmers and textile clusters. Many pickers were paid well above the minimum wage as a result.”

Sean Ansett, president of At Stake Advisors, a Colorado-based consultancy, said that Uzbekistan should be applauded—and rewarded, albeit cautiously—by the international community for its progress.

“The Uzbekistan government has now created an enabling environment for responsible cotton sourcing by global brands to begin again,” Ansett, who previously led corporate social responsibility at Burberry and Gap, both signatories of the Responsible Sourcing Network’s Uzbek Cotton Pledge Against Forced  Labor, told Sourcing Journal. “Moving forward, the government will benefit from allowing civil society and independent trade unions to operate freely in Uzbekistan.”

Global brands, retailers, and cotton traders who “kick-start sourcing from Uzbekistan should do so with caution and map all suppliers in the Uzbek value chain and continue to monitor issues of forced labor and other labor issues outlined [in their] codes of conduct,” he added.

The Cotton Campaign will be presenting its own findings on the 2021 cotton harvest next week, said Bennett Freeman, senior vice president for social research and policy at the Calvert Group and the coalition’s co-founder. He revealed, however, that the Cotton Campaign’s views will not veer significantly from the ILO’s.

“It’s a historic achievement and there’s a lot of credit to go around,” he told Sourcing Journal, though he emphasized that the commodity is not so much “free” as “virtually free” of child and forced labor.

At the same time, Freeman warned that “serious challenges” still need to be overcome if “there’s going to be full respect for labor rights and human rights,” not only in the Uzbek cotton supply chain but also more broadly across the country.

“We really think that the government has a lot more to do to put into place what we call the enabling environments necessary for the next phase, which will be responsible sourcing by global brands, who [need to] have [the] confidence that the risks still present in Uzbekistan can be overcome.”

With cotton from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwestern China, where allegations of forced labor from persecuted Muslim minorities proliferate, now taboo for most Western brands, many of them are on the hunt for new, less contentious sourcing opportunities.

“But they’re going to be wary of coming into a country that [had] until very recently a legacy of labor and human-rights abuses,” said Freeman, who was a Clinton presidential appointee in the State Department. “So the ball is going to be in the court of government to sustain the momentum of reforms. It’s good news, but I can’t think of too many historic achievements that don’t still have significant legacy issues that have to be addressed.”