The 2020 cotton harvest was the shortest in ten years, lasting only between 40 and 60 days, depending on the region. Cotton picking began between September 10-20, and by October 20, five of Uzbekistan’s 13 regions—Fergana, Andijan, Khorezm, Karakalpakstan and Namangan— had already reported that they had fulfilled their regional targets.
Uzbek Forum monitored the cotton harvest in six regions, Khorezm, Karakalpakstan, Jizzakh, Fergana, Andijan, and Kashkadarya with a team of 12 experienced monitors. Monitors interviewed cotton pickers, leaders of picking brigades, farmers, mahalla officials, police officers, tax inspectors, employees of the Ministry of Emergency Situations, and employees of dozens of state organizations directly involved in the cotton harvest. In addition, Uzbek Forum monitors also reviewed more than 100 messages on social networks and approximately fifty letters submitted to Pakhtagram, a dedicated Telegram channel of Radio Ozodlik, the Uzbek language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. All direct interviews were conducted by trained monitors who have had several years’ experience monitoring labor and human rights issues with Uzbek Forum and have a wide range of contacts in rural communities. All monitors permanently reside in the areas they report on and have the opportunity to visit the monitoring sites several times during the cotton season to test initial observations and document any changes over the course of the season, especially at the end when the risk of forced labor increases.
Significant progress in reducing forced labor of cotton pickers: In 2020, Uzbek Forum monitors observed less forced labor of cotton pickers than in any previous year. For the first time, in some districts, monitors did not document any cases of forced labor. Progress was due to a variety of factors:
- Political commitment and policy actions: The government continued its ambitious reform program to eliminate forced labor. The government’s strong political commitment and messages from key central officials against forced labor were clear and unequivocal. Among other policy actions, the government continued awareness raising activities, introduced measures to provide cotton pickers with written contracts, and facilitated anonymous submissions to the feedback mechanism. Although Uzbek Forum did not have access to detailed information that would allow an analysis of the impact of these measures, these steps were previously recommended by Uzbek Forum and the Cotton Campaign, among others, and demonstrate the government’s responsiveness to recommendations and willingness to test new approaches. In addition, a government resolution of September 8, 2020, “On measures to organize the cotton harvest in 2020”, stipulated that heads of regions and districts bear personal responsibility “for prevention and restriction of forced recruitment of workers from spheres of education, public health services and other budgetary organizations, as well as pupils and students of educational institutions to cotton picking.”
- Large numbers of voluntary pickers: Negative economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic including job losses and returning migrant workers meant that an increased number of people looking for work were willing to pick cotton to earn money. At least 500,000 migrant workers returning to Uzbekistan from abroad added significantly to the supply of voluntary pickers. The large supply of pickers also meant that the harvest was completed quickly, and regional targets fulfilled before the cold weather set in and cotton was sparse, which generally reduce voluntary turnout and create risks for forced labor.
- Labor inspectorate stepped up enforcement efforts: In December, the Ministry of Employment announced that the Labor Inspectorate monitored more than 3,048 enterprises and farms during the 2020 cotton harvest. 42 officials, including heads of enterprises, hokims and their deputies were given administrative penalties under Article 51 of the Administrative Liability Code for the use of forced labor, just one fewer than in 2019, when there were more reported cases of forced labor. The State Labor Inspectorate also found 61 cases of failure to conclude labor contracts with more than 540 citizens, 34 cases of failure to create decent working conditions, 13 cases of failure to perform duties, and 17 cases of late payment of wages. In addition to investigating complaints brought through official channels, the Labor Inspectorate investigated allegations of forced labor made on social media. The government also introduced criminal penalties for repeat violations although Uzbek Forum is not aware of any criminal cases brought for forced labor in 2020.
- Increase in payments for pickers: The government’s harvest resolution slightly increased the payment to cotton pickers from 10 to 12 cents (depending on the district) for the first harvest and 14 cents for the second harvest. Some pickers were able to earn up to 16 cents per kilo in the second and third collection phases, attracting sufficient pickers even in colder conditions with less potential to pick large amounts of cotton.
- Improved recruitment practices and mitigation measures enacted by some clusters: Some individual cotton-textile clusters introduced measures to prevent and detect instances of forced labor, such as providing pickers with written contracts and identification badges that would be checked before pickers could enter the cotton fields. Uzbek Forum found that these were of mixed effectiveness, since many pickers did not have or read their contracts, and pickers removed their badges because they interfered with picking by getting stuck in cotton stalks. Some clusters organized recruitment by hiring brigade leaders to recruit and supervise cotton pickers and serve as an intermediary between farmers and pickers. This measure appeared to have had significant success in preventing forced labor.
Government officials in some districts forcibly mobilized employees of organizations, banks, emergency services, and public enterprises to pick cotton and extorted money from market traders: Despite elimination of the government-imposed regional and district production quotas, officials continued to organize and supervise the harvest. Regional and district officials were mandated to ensure that farmers fulfilled their cotton production contracts with clusters and that district and regional production targets were met. Some officials mobilized workers of public sector organizations, banks, emergency services and other agencies or collected money for replacement pickers, despite the large supply of voluntary labor.
- Continued government involvement in oversight of the harvest: Despite the almost complete privatization of the cotton sector, the 2020 cotton harvest was conducted under the supervision of local hokimiats, regardless of the fact that farmers signed contracts and supplied cotton to private textile enterprises (clusters). Even in the absence of the recently abolished state set quotas, a daily “cotton picking schedule” was drawn up and the information on the progress of the harvest was transmitted to Cotton Monitoring Centers on a daily basis. For example, a document from the Dangara district hokimiat of the Fergana region titled “On the creation of cotton headquarters and formation of brigades of pickers and provision of decent working conditions for cotton pickers” sets out the rules for the organization of the cotton season. The document states that each district is to create cotton headquarters under the leadership of the district hokim before the beginning of the cotton harvest.
- Lack of progress in developing fully independent recruitment systems: Hokims and mahalla officials, who were historically responsible for organizing labor for the harvest, including mobilizing forced labor, continued to oversee the formation of cotton brigades and the recruitment of pickers in many places. Without decoupling recruitment from government influence, there is a serious risk that the reduction in forced labor will not be sustainable when the economy improves, and the supply of voluntary cotton pickers declines as people return to other employment.
Significant variation in practices between districts: Uzbek Forum documented important variations in labor practices between districts, even districts within the same region. In some districts, monitors did not document any cases of forced labor, whereas in others, forced mobilization remained a serious problem. Since only one cotton-textile cluster operates per district, variations are attributable to practices of specific clusters as well as the availability of voluntary pickers, and practices of district officials. In low population regions where cotton is plentiful, there is a persistent shortage of voluntary cotton pickers, which presents a risk of forced labor. Hokims of districts that were falling behind targets faced the choice of risking cotton left unpicked or possibly spoiled by rain or resorting to the forced recruitment of pickers. Despite reforms and an increased awareness among officials of the prohibition of forced labor, they continue to bear the responsibility to oversee a successful harvest, heightening the risk of forced labor. Illustrative examples include:
- In Zafarabad district in Jizzakh region, employees of several state organizations were ordered by their supervisors to either go to the cotton fields themselves or pay for hired pickers. An employee of the Financial Department for Entrepreneurship Development told Uzbek Forum monitors that, “We received an assignment from the regional hokimiat to participate in hashar’” [traditional voluntary community work].” He and other employees hired pickers every day for 50,000 soums per day while technical staff volunteered to go to the fields. Employees of electricity networks, gas supply, and improvement departments from Zarbdor and Zafarabad districts were also sent to the harvest.
- Every employee of the Zafarabad branch of the state enterprise “Ermulkkadastr” was ordered by their superiors to pick cotton for 15 days. Some hired replacement pickers, but those who couldn’t afford to, went themselves. On September 15, the head of the land use department gathered all 30 employees and told them they had to go to the harvest for 15 days. Those who stayed behind had to do the work of those who left. “You cannot refuse, everyone participates, since no one wants a conflict with the authorities over 15 days of cotton a year….We try to wear masks [as a COVID-19 precaution], but in the field there is nowhere to wash our hands with soap and water before eating. There are helplines, but I won’t complain as I don’t need problems.”
- The Ministry of Emergencies issued a decree ordering 2,890 firefighters be sent to the Mirishkor district of Kashkadarya region, a low population, remote area in the steppe, to pick cotton. Pickers, including firefighters and voluntary pickers sent from other parts of the country, lived in tents together wand had to walk two hours to get to the fields where they picked cotton produced for a private cotton-textile cluster. This case reveals not only the ongoing structural risks for forced labor, but also the close entanglements between the government and some clusters which also create forced labor risks.
- The Namangan region is a high population region and should have had a sufficient supply of voluntary pickers. However, Uzbek Forum monitors reviewed dozens of social media posts by employees of public enterprises and organizations in which credible and specific allegations were made that they were forced to pick cotton under threat of penalty for farms linked to private textile clusters.
More cases of child labor observed than in recent years due to school closures, poverty: Although the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic increased the number of voluntary pickers who worked in the cotton harvest, it also increased child labor due to increased poverty and school disruption. Uzbekistan, which used to rely on widespread and systematic state-sponsored child labor to harvest cotton, successfully ended the practice by 2014. The government, ILO, and other organizations have invested in significant awareness-raising and education efforts around the unacceptability of child labor in cotton picking. In 2020, however, monitors documented 15 cases of child labor—many more than in recent years. In all cases, the children, generally ages 15-17, picked cotton with their families due to pandemic school closures to help earn money for their families. In interviews with Uzbek Forum, parents said that they didn’t see anything wrong in children helping the family. However, they also said that when they saw a district policeman or other government official, children would hide in the bushes or pretend to have come only for a short time.
Corporate-centered reform of the cotton sector has produced vulnerabilities for farmers and workers: Rapid privatization with little oversight of corporate actors and practices has resulted in increased vulnerability for farmers. Contract farmers have little bargaining power with as clusters, which have taken on monopolistic attributes as there is only one per district and they control pricing and inputs. Farmers are at risk of losing their land if they refuse to grow cotton for the cluster and can face deceptive practices. In 2020, farmers did not know the price they would be paid for the cotton they delivered until after they signed their contracts. For 2021, prices were announced in late December. In the direct farming system, farmers are being coerced into giving up their land leases with no compensation, a strategy spearheaded by the government which is overseeing the transfer of large tracts of land to clusters. Farmers either lose their means of subsistence entirely or become employees of clusters. However, despite promises, there is no obligation on the part of private enterprises to compensate farmers with employment for having taken over their land. The shift to a privatized agricultural sector is having devastating impacts on rural livelihoods.
- Transfer of land leases from small and medium farmers to clusters without compensation for farmers: According to current data, the government of Uzbekistan has approved 96 clusters covering 907,783 hectares in a process that has seen the direct transfer of some 27.5% of Uzbekistan’s cultivable land to clusters, mainly for the growing of cotton, affecting tens of thousands of farmers and the farmworkers that depended on them. In the majority of cases known to Uzbek Forum, farmers who ostensibly terminated their land leases “voluntarily” did so under pressure and received no compensation. In the case of one cluster operating in the Jizzakh region that received land from farmers whose leases were terminated, the cluster paid farmers compensation for lost crops but farmers received no compensation from the state. Another cluster operating in Kashkadarya and Syrdarya regions received land taken from 1,068 farmers who were pressured to give up their land leases under promise of employment at the cluster. Some farmers went on to work for the cluster for wages while others were left unemployed. Similar transfers have affected thousands of farmers and farm workers.
- Impact on rural livelihoods: The loss of farmland impacts not only farmers, but also rural communities who have traditionally relied on access to small parcels of land, rented from farmers to grow food or graze cattle to supplement modest incomes. During the 2020 harvest, Uzbek Forum monitors received numerous reports that clusters no longer permit the use of small plots of land for these purposes and forbids the collection of remaining cotton stalks which are used for cooking and firewood. These supplementary income sources combined with a loss of autonomy of farmers are pushing rural communities into deepening poverty. One official in Kasbi told Uzbek Forum monitors that the number of unemployed in the district had tripled and the numbers of those receiving social assistance had soared.
- Lack of bargaining power for farmers to negotiate viable prices or choose which cluster: Farmers have no choice about whether to grow cotton or which cluster they can contract with. They have no bargaining power to negotiate the price they receive for cotton or the price they pay for inputs. A farmer in Nishan district, Kashkadarya, told Uzbek Forum,
I cannot choose what to plant and I cannot reduce the amount of land for growing cotton. I am the lowest link, a machine to produce the goods they need. I cannot influence the terms of the contract in any way. They determine it themselves, they set the plan, they set the price themselves, nobody listens to us, they don’t care at all, our opinion doesn’t interest them. The state has cancelled the cotton quota, but I have my own quota for the contract signed with the cluster. I cannot influence anything. I am even now afraid to answer your questions. I am only a machine for work.”
In another example, in December 2020, 32 farmers in the Shavat District of Khorezm region appealed to the President and Prime minister to release them from their obligations to the Textile Finance Khorezm cluster, which is part of the Uztex Group. Farmers wrote that they have been working with this cluster since 2018 and each year their financial condition has deteriorated so much that they do not even have money to plant food crops. This year, the cluster is paying them 4522 soums (approximately US$ .40) for 1 kg of cotton, while the cost of growing it is 5300 soums (approximately US$ .50). In January 2021, the farmers told Uzbek Forum that they attempted to form a cooperative but were denied by local officials.
Civic space is constrained, tightly controlled, arbitrarily restricted: Uzbekistan’s reform program has produced results in terms of reducing and getting close to eliminating the forced labor of pickers. But this approach, which has prioritized prohibition and enforcement instead of opening space for independent unions, allowing civic participation and building up systems of oversight, transparency, and governance, has also allowed new abuses to emerge. Independent monitoring by workers and civic actors is essential to promote accountability and transparency and to ensure that reforms are robust and sustainable. A vibrant civil society will also help attract responsible brands and investors by giving confidence that the system is transparent, accountable, and can prevent, identify, and remedy abuses.
- Obstacles to NGO registration: Authorities continue to impose excessive and burdensome registration requirements on independent NGOs in violation of their freedom of association. Uzbek authorities have repeatedly and arbitrarily denied registration to nearly all independent human rights NGOs, including those that monitor forced labor.
- No independent unions: Although Uzbekistan has ratified ILO Convention 87 on Freedom of Association, it has made little progress on meaningful implementation. Farmers, farmworkers, and cotton pickers are vulnerable to abuses by clusters as well as local officials and are not represented by independent labor unions or other representative organizations. They have no opportunities for collective bargaining and only limited access to responsive, effective grievance mechanisms that can provide meaningful remedies.
A Path Forward
There is an emerging need to allow a way for producers not using forced labor to gain access to international buyers, and to provide global brands with confidence they are compliant with international laws. Seeking to recognize the important progress made in Uzbekistan and responding to concerns from the global business community about the need for assurances of no forced labor, strong monitoring, and labor protections, the Cotton Campaign, of which Uzbek Forum is a member, has developed a model that would allow producers not using forced labor to access international markets. Such a model is critical for the protection of the rights of farmers and workers as well as to provide credible assurances to brands and buyers that forced labor does not taint their supply chains.