Forced Labour In Uzbekistan: Achieving Lasting Change

In 2016, the death of President Islam Karimov marked the end of his 26 years of autocratic rule in Uzbekistan. Under Karimov, Uzbekistan gained a reputation for having an oppressive government that subjected many of its citizens to a variety of human rights abuses including forced labour in cotton fields. Karimov’s successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has undertaken several reforms aimed at reversing Karimov’s policies and improving relations with neighbouring countries. Despite these reforms, forced labour has continued in Uzbekistan with the International Labour Organization estimating that over 170,000 people were coerced into picking cotton in 2018. To put an end to forced labour, it is necessary for the Mirziyoyev government to undertake a series of systematic reforms that repeal the centrally mandated quota system and abolish policies that reinforce socioeconomic hierarchies while promoting union organizing.

Cotton has been a major part of Uzbekistan’s economy since the 1940s when Soviet planners targeted the country for cotton production. By the late 1970s, the Economist reports that Uzbekistan was generating over 70% of Soviet cotton production. Today, the International Labour Organization reports that Uzbekistan is the sixth-largest cotton producer in the world, with cotton from the country being purchased by major fast fashion brands around the world. Cotton production in the country is organized based on a quota system. The central government sets regional quotas for cotton production, and regional and district officials, or hokims, distribute quotas among institutions like schools, businesses, and healthcare facilities. These institutions must then organize workers to ensure that quotas are met. Hokims risk losing their jobs and other consequences if they fail to deliver the centrally imposed cotton quotas. This pressure was clearly seen in 2017 when at least three regional hokims were fired for failing to meet designated quotas.

This quota system, combined with the labour-intensive nature of cotton production, often leads the hokims to rely on involuntary labour. Hokims will often threaten and punish local officials and institutions if they fail to deliver their share of cotton. These institutions then force their workers and students to pick cotton or risk being fired or fined. Until 2012, children ages 11-15 were mobilized on a mass scale to pick cotton, with schools essentially closing during harvest seasons. Workers were given high daily quotas, with the Uzbek-German Forum reporting that many college students were forced to pick up to 70 kilograms of cotton per day. This intense manual labour has led to several deaths each year, as many are forced to pick cotton for long periods of time without access to clean drinking water. Though there is limited access to information about this forced mobilization, the International Labor Rights Forum estimated that during the 2014 harvest period, millions of people were coerced into picking cotton and 17 people died as a direct result of the cotton harvest. This coercion becomes worse in later stages of the harvest season when there are fewer volunteers because there is less cotton available to pick and therefore less money to be made.

However, President Mirziyoyev signalled a major change in the government’s policies towards forced labour when he addressed the UN general assembly on September 19, 2017 to acknowledge the issue publicly for the first time. A few days later, Uzbek Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov recalled all students and education and medical personnel who had been forced to work in the cotton fields. Mirziyoyev has made efforts to recruit more voluntary workers by raising wages by 85%. The government has also begun to reform remnants of the Soviet system by allowing companies to contract directly with farmers to grow cotton. To document this progress, the International Labour Organization, which was previously banned from investigating labour issues within Uzbekistan, was allowed to monitor the 2017 and 2018 harvests. It also set up telephone hotlines to report abuse.

Despite these reforms, forced labour persists in many regions of the country, because the centralized quota system continues to put pressure on regional officials to mobilize large numbers of people. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Labor found that 336,000 of the 2.6 million people involved in the harvest were involuntary workers. In 2018, this number fell to 170,000. The Coordination Council on Decent Work, the government’s largest monitoring body, found that at least 18 children were forced to participate in the harvest. There are also reports that those who refused to pick cotton were forced to pay fines or lose child and welfare benefits, and that officials attempted to mislead monitors by requiring students and employees to sign statements saying that they picked cotton voluntarily. For example, a doctor told Uzbek-German Forum monitors that if she had a choice, she, “would never pick cotton,” but that she had been forced to sign an agreement that said she participated voluntarily. She also says that she was taken to a remote field to hide when foreign commissions arrived. To make matters worse, a presidential decree issued in 2017 prohibited unscheduled inspections of private businesses, making it difficult to check if institutions were illegally mobilizing workers.

Given the persistence of forced labour despite Mirziyoyev’s reforms, it is clear that more systematic changes must be made to permanently end coerced labour. The most important step in abolishing forced labour is ending the centrally mandated quota system. As long as the government maintains this quota system, regional and district officials will have incentives to use force and coercion to mobilize workers. While some individuals did voluntarily participate in the harvest, hokims do not have the resources to attract enough voluntary labour to meet the quotas, because they are unable to offer competitive wages. Hokims fear repercussions from the central government so they pressure local institutions with dismissal or violence. These institutions then pass on this burden to their employees. The only way to end this cycle of fear is to eliminate the central government’s role in setting unrealistic cotton quotas.

In addition to ending this quota system, it is also important to eliminate policies that enforce a socioeconomic hierarchy by coercing low-income individuals to work for uncompetitive wages. Independent monitors from the Uzbek-German Forum found that many institutions require their employees to pay a fee to cover the cost of a replacement worker if they opt out of participating in the cotton harvest. This means that those who cannot afford to pay these fees must work the harvest where they will likely be paid lower wages, reinforcing this system of poverty and solidifying socioeconomic inequalities. To avoid these inequalities, it is important for the government to clearly outlaw policies that require individuals to pay a fine if they choose not to work in the cotton fields.

The Mirziyoyev government should also allow for the formation of unions and encourage collective bargaining. This kind of labour organizing could give cotton workers leverage to negotiate better wages and working conditions. It would also allow people to more easily report abuses by employers without facing unemployment or wage cuts.

While Mirziyoyev’s reforms are clearly a step in the right direction, if they are not followed by more systematic changes, it is likely that progress towards ending forced labour will stagnate. Abolishing the centrally mandated quota system, outlawing policies that reinforce economic inequalities, and encouraging union formation and collective bargaining will all help bring a more permanent and complete end to forced labour in Uzbekistan.

Ruby Shealy