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Misbegotten Cotton

Pop quiz. The shirt you’re wearing—where was it made? Check the tag for the answer. Now, where did the material come from? Harder to find out, but if it’s Uzbekistan, you might want to take it off.

Nestled between Asia and Europe on the once-mighty Silk Road, Uzbekistan is the world’s fifth-largest cotton exporter. Cotton, often referred to as “white gold,” has been a dominant force in Uzbekistan’s economy since Soviet leaders dubbed the country the “cotton capital” of the USSR. Yet Uzbek cotton has a bloody history: It flourished on the backs of millions of forced laborers.

The Uzbek cotton harvest is one of the world’s largest mobilizations of seasonal labor. In 2018, 2.5 million people worked in the country’s cotton fields. The national government alleges that pickers work because of economic incentives or out of civic duty driven by an Uzbek tradition called khashar. However, the government continues to employ Soviet-era production quotas that coerce local officials to forcibly mobilize citizens, constituting what many consider to be modern-day slavery.

The problem starts with the cotton industry’s nationalization. Although land was nominally privatized after the fall of the USSR, the government still maintained control over agricultural prices, targets, and inputs. The Soviet model lingered in other areas too—most notably in the quota system. For decades, the Uzbek government has set crop production thresholds that regional leaders must reach or face punishment. To avoid such punishment, regional leaders mobilize labor at their disposal to propel cotton production beyond its natural rate.

The Uzbek cotton industry is built on the blood and sweat of involuntary labor. Under the presidency of Islam Karmov, which lasted from 1990 to 2016, the country regularly used child labor and forced public employees, such as teachers and doctors, to pick cotton for long hours in horrid conditions. Before 2011, schools were closed from September to November so over 1.5 million Uzbek children could perform backbreaking labor for the cotton industry without adequate food, water, or shelter. A surge of outrage sparked international condemnation, sanctions, and boycotts from 260 global clothing brands, reducing cotton exports by 65 percent and forcing the country to sell to secondary markets in China and Russia. In response, Uzbekistan gradually cracked down on the use of child labor, phasing it out by 2014. However, as the government recognized the industry’s national importance and profited immensely from cotton production, the quota system persisted.

After Shavkat Mirziyoev became president in 2016, Uzbekistan promised to end forced labor and issued a decree prohibiting the practice. But even though the federal government officially banned forced mobilization, it did not eliminate its root causes. While child labor has been legally abolished, the existence of quotas continues to incentivize leaders to force adult workers into the fields. A local official told Human Rights Watch in 2017 that “the government pays your salary so you will pick or you could be asked to give up your post. You can’t refuse [to pick cotton].” Indeed, in 2017, the International Labor Organization estimated that over 330,000 of 2.6 million pickers, which included firefighters, police officers, and public water company workers, were coerced by authorities to harvest cotton. Although the number of forced laborers decreased to 170,000 in 2018, a reduction of 48 percent, the continued presence of forced labor undermined President Mirziyoyev’s declaration that “no schools, institutes or state-funded organizations” would participate in future cotton harvests. For years, the government has demonstrated a clear disconnect between its perceived and actual role in enabling forced labor. Mirziyoev has sounded off against the practice, but his government has upheld a system which allows it.

"The government continues to employ Soviet-era production quotas that coerce local officials to forcibly mobilize citizens, constituting what many consider to be modern-day slavery."

This is not to diminish the progress the Uzbek government has made. In 2018, the government punished 206 regional governors for forced labor violations, an increase from 2017. It also increased wages for pickers, resulting in more voluntary labor. However, in regions where bad weather reduces cotton yields, forced mobilization remains prevalent. Despite Uzbekistan’s federal push for abolishing forced labor, the institutionalized quota system perpetuates it.

Uzbekistan’s complete eradication of forced labor is extremely important because the country’s future development relies on an image of modernization and deliberate improvements to its human rights record. The nation has become the “rising star” of Central Asia. Its economy grew by six percent in 2018, and foreign direct investment increased by 400 percent in 2019. Aid from the World Bank has legitimized and furthered this growth. In 2017, after Uzbekistan committed itself to eliminating forced labor, the World Bank extended half a billion dollars of loans to revamp and diversify its economy—on the condition that no forced labor would exist in World Bank-funded regions. The organization asserted the right to rescind loans if these conditions were violated. However, the presence of forced labor in unfunded areas has sparked anger from human rights groups, which denounce the World Bank for abetting a government that has not fully committed to abolishing forced labor. Uzbekistan’s quota system not only cuts the country off from multinational investment but also threatens existing monetary flows that provide stable employment and a foundation for future growth. 

Uzbekistan’s growth and integration into the world economy relies on its complete eradication of forced labor, which will not happen as long as production quotas exist. Although the U.S. Department of Labor removed the nation from a blacklist of countries using child labor in 2018, it still bans the import of Uzbek cotton because of its linkages to forced labor. Likewise, Western clothing brands like Nike boycott Uzbek cotton for the same reason. No multinational clothing brand will reverse its boycott unless credible evidence exists that no Uzbek picker worked involuntarily. The quota system engenders forced mobilization, prevents Uzbekistan from integrating into the world economy, and jeopardizes its access to foreign capital. Legal challenges by human rights groups in the U.K. and European Union have called for expanding bans on Uzbek cotton as long as forced labor persists.

Uzbekistan stands at the crossroads of a dark past and a promising future. Although the central government has demonstrated “strong political will” to liberalize its cotton industry and phase out its worst transgressions, it cannot complete its transformation until it eradicates its artificial quota system. Although the state should be commended for expressing openness to abandoning quotas by 2022, this commitment does little for workers in the present. At the very least, the government must enforce its existing ban on forced labor by following through on the prosecution of officials complicit in the practice. But for Uzbekistan to expand its economic opportunities and promote the well-being of its citizens, it must fully commit to abandoning the underlying system that facilitates a form of modern-day slavery. Only then can Uzbek cotton return to global markets and clothing lines with pride.

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