- The world’s sixth-largest cotton exporter has for decades relied on forced labor.
- A reformist government facing global market pressures is ending the practice, also allowing farmers to grow other crops.
- Major global brands like Adidas, Zara and Gap, which have boycotted Uzbek cotton for years, are waiting to see whether the change is permanent.
Fotima Abdurakhmanova was 16 years old in October 1984, when she and her classmates were sent to work in a cotton field, leaving behind math and literature classes. They were each ordered to pick 110 pounds of cotton every day. On her best days, Abdurakhmanova could only manage to collect 45 pounds. “So almost every evening I was among others who were sent to the kitchen to peel a bag of potatoes as a punishment,” she recalls.
For decades, her experience was the norm in Uzbekistan. Starting in the 1950s, the then-Soviet republic made it mandatory for children (from fifth grade onward) and adults to work in cotton fields for as little as 3 cents a kilo collected. The cotton industry contributed 65 percent of the Uzbek gross domestic product.
That forced labor continued after the fall of communism in 1991. According to the World Bank, up to 3 million people were involved in the harvest in 2014. But that chain is finally starting to break.
Pressure from international human rights groups made the United States, in 2010, ban Uzbek cotton imports by any federal agency. A growing global movement called the Cotton Campaign has led 312 companies — among them major retailers like Adidas, Amazon, Columbia, Gap, H&M, Nike and Zara — to take the so-called Uzbek Cotton Pledge to boycott the country’s cotton.
But market pressures alone didn’t help change Uzbekistan while it was ruled by Islam Karimov, the country’s strongman leader until his death, in 2016. Now, as Uzbekistan starts to open up under his successor, Shavkat Mirziyoev, the world’s sixth-largest exporter of cotton is responding to global pressure.
Forced labor has been made an offense, with violations attracting a fine. “Wages for cotton pickers have been increased significantly,” says Jonas Astrup, chief technical adviser at the International Labor Organization (ILO) — almost triple what they were under Karimov. Local activists and civil society groups have been allowed to independently monitor the harvest.
There are decades when nothing happens and weeks when decades happen.
Oybek Shaykhov, European-Uzbekistan Association for Economic Cooperation, on Uzbekistan’s recent changes
And finally, in March 2020, Mirziyoev announced an end of a cotton quota that farmers had to previously produce to avoid the risk of losing land. Farmland is technically owned by the state, and farmers lease it. The quota in turn incentivized forced labor.
“This is a major step because the quota system is at the heart of the repressive system that drives forced labor in Uzbekistan,” says Steve Swerdlow, a human rights lawyer and Central Asia expert.
Uzbekistan’s experience serves as a reminder for global campaigners against forced labor elsewhere that external pressure only works in partnership with internal reforms within a country.
The country’s forced labor practices have roots in America’s history of cotton slavery. As the American Civil War led to a rapid rise in global cotton prices, the Russian Empire decided to produce the commodity itself. Around the same time that Cherokee chief Stand Watee became the last Confederate general to surrender, Tashkent capitulated to Russian Gen. Mikhail Chernyaev.
In the 1930s, the Communist Party converted Uzbekistan into a mono-production nation, growing cotton. A team of African American agronomists helped Soviet Uzbekistan improve cotton production. They were visited by singer Paul Robeson in Tashkent.
By the 1970s, the industry’s massive water needs sparked a crisis, almost drying up the Aral Sea, the fourth-largest lake in the world. And an insatiable need for workers meant that in the 1950s, the Communist Party made it obligatory for urban high school and university students, government employees, military personnel and others to pick cotton. Conditions were tough. Anton Zakharevich from Tashkent, who was sent to pick cotton in 1983 when he was a 19-year-old student, lived in barracks, 100 people in each one. “It was so cold … I got pneumonia,” he recalls.
Well-known Uzbek photographer Elyor Nemat, who was studying at a university in Bukhara in the early 2000s, recalls how the practice continued under Karimov every year, from September to November. To refuse would mean dismissal from university.
“We were living in a stable. Working every day from 7 a.m. No chance to have a bath. No water. Your hands always scratched to blood,” he remembers.
Like the pickers, the farmers were trapped too. Farmers who leased the land from the government had no freedom to choose their crops. “Farmers were hostages of the state,” says Oybek Shaykhov, general secretary of the Brussels-based European-Uzbekistan Association for Economic Cooperation.
All of that is changing. An ILO survey of 7,000 pickers during the 2019 harvest found that 94 percent were working out of choice, says Astrup. But there’s more to be done. Though the U.S. last year removed the country’s cotton from its blacklist, the Cotton Campaign’s ban remains intact. In April, Uzbekistan’s labor minister, Nozim Khusanov, requested that the campaign lift the ban to assist the struggling Uzbek economy during the coronavirus pandemic. The campaign said “brands need additional assurances of worker protections” first.
Meanwhile, Uzbekistan is also taking steps to free farmers. From this year, there’s no state quota, nor a state-fixed price for cotton. Farmers can choose to grow other crops — though privatization of agricultural land isn’t on the table yet.
Even with those policy reforms, changing people’s minds won’t be easy. “I was growing cotton all my life. I [only] know how to grow cotton,” says Murod Yusufov, an elderly farmer from Khorezm in northwest Uzbekistan.
Still, Uzbekistan’s rapid shifts to dismantle cotton slavery are stunning, say observers. “There are decades when nothing happens and weeks when decades happen,” says Shaykhov.