Uzbekistan Ends Systemic Forced Labor, Civil Society Says

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A woman picks cotton during the 2015 cotton harvest, which runs from early September to late October or early November annually.

© 2015 Simon Buxton/Anti-Slavery International

Uzbekistan and its civil society reached a historic turning point in efforts to combat forced labor in the country’s annual cotton harvest yesterday.

For decades, millions of people in Uzbekistan were forced to pick cotton, a national crop, under one of the world’s largest, most exploitable state-run forced labor programs. Yesterday, March 10, the Cotton Campaign, an alliance of human rights nongovernmental (NGO) groups, trade unions, and business associations, confirmed that during the most recent cotton harvest in autumn 2021, for the first time local authorities did not systematically force people to go to the fields to pick cotton.

As a result, the campaign said it would end the 11-year-old ‘Pledge,’ a commitment by over 330 companies in the United States and elsewhere, including Gap, C&A, and Tesco, to not use Uzbek cotton in their products.

“This is one of the most significant victories anywhere in the world in the battle against forced labor in the twenty-first century,” said Bennett Freeman, co-founder of the Cotton Campaign, at a joint press conference with the Uzbek government.

We owe this victory primarily to the courage of human rights activists in Uzbekistan, who over many years and at great personal risk went to the cotton fields to monitor where and how people were being forced to pick cotton. Their reports, gathered in particular by the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, an NGO founded by Uzbek activist Umida Niyazova, alerted the world that severe human rights abuses were occurring.

International groups played a role too. Human Rights Watch, a member of the Cotton Campaign, published reports on forced labor and lobbied the government to allow independent NGOs to monitor the annual harvest. After president Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power in 2016, Human Rights Watch urged the government to prioritize the end of forced labor.

The Uzbek government deserves credit for its bold steps to dismantle the structures that forced people to pick cotton.

It is vital that Uzbekistan’s government persist with reforms to ensure systemic forced labor does not return. There is much work to do. Many NGOs, including those monitoring the cotton harvest, are not able to register their organizations and so cannot operate freely. Independent trade union organizing is also banned. More broadly, the government needs to support responsible sourcing for Uzbek cotton, so international companies and consumers know for sure that there is no forced labor in the product’s supply chain.

But at a time when such human rights victories are rare, this one is really worth celebrating.

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