Uzbekistan Should Emphasize Workers’ Rights to Maintain Momentum for Responsible Sourcing

Independent Civil Society Monitoring Finds that the Cotton Production System Still Turns to Forced Labor when under Pressure

February 1, 2024 | WASHINGTON, D.C.
Independent civil society monitoring of the annual cotton harvest in Uzbekistan found that in 2023, local officials resorted to forced labor in districts with a shortage of voluntary pickers, forcing some employees of several state organizations to pick cotton or pay for a replacement picker. The report, Uzbek Cotton Harvest 2023-Risk of Forced Labor Remains High: Government Officials Use Coercion to Address Shortage of Pickers, was published today by Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, a member of the Cotton Campaign. The report comes at a time when global brands and retailers are carefully monitoring the viability of sourcing from Uzbekistan following the end of systemic state-imposed forced labor. The Uzbek government and local cotton companies should take immediate action to reinforce reform and develop a cotton and textiles industry that meets international labor standards, the Cotton Campaign said in response to the report. Further reforms are needed to ensure that labor shortages, as well as any other challenges facing the Uzbek cotton and textiles sector, are addressed through solutions grounded in freedom of association and collective bargaining rights, conform with ILO standards and global supply chain governance. This is essential to enable responsible sourcing of cotton products from Uzbekistan.

"Shortages of voluntary pickers and other problems are a stress test to the system. The fact that officials resorted to forced labor shows that the current reforms aren't enough and the danger of serious backsliding remains," said Allison Gill, Legal Director at Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF), which hosts the Cotton Campaign. "Reforms to strengthen and protect workers' and farmers' freedom of association and collective bargaining rights are critical to eliminate all forms of forced and exploitative labor, and achieve decent work."

The shortage of voluntary pickers in the 2023 harvest was the result of a combination of factors, including the relatively low pay rates for cotton picking compared to those for other agricultural work and the resurgence of labor migration to Russia and elsewhere, after the Covid-19 pandemic. The central government has a clear policy prohibiting forced labor and did not directly order mobilization of state employees to address labor shortages. However, the system of administrative command and control incentivized government officials at district levels to turn to forced labor. Government officials were required to ensure the timely fulfillment of daily cotton production, under threat of penalty, including dismissal and even the threat of criminal proceedings.

Three main factors led to the use of forced labor in the 2023 harvest: i) continued government control of the harvest and persistence of de facto cotton production targets, in combination with ii) little to no bargaining power for farmers, resulting into delayed or failed payments for the cotton they delivered to cotton companies, impacting their ability to pay rates high enough to incentivise cotton picking; and iii) a lack of functioning grievance mechanisms and freedom of association protections at workplaces, including state organizations. 

“The cotton production system in Uzbekistan remains coercive, despite reforms to end systematic and widespread state-imposed forced labor”, said Umida Niyazova, Executive Director of Uzbek Forum for Human Rights. “To make further progress towards a sustainable cotton sector, reforms are needed to enable and protect farmers’ freedom of choice over what crops they grow and which cotton companies they enter into contracts with, as well as farmers’ bargaining rights to negotiate the contracts’ terms and conditions.”

Uzbek Forum for Human Rights' report also describes ongoing retaliation against workers at cotton company Indorama Agro seeking to organize and improve their working conditions through collective bargaining, and obstruction of independent monitoring and reporting on labor conditions there. This further underscores the urgent need for Uzbekistan to introduce reforms to reduce restrictions on freedom of association and strengthen collective bargaining rights. The ILO recognized that advancing these rights is the primary lever of change to end forced labor and develop the mechanisms needed to address forced labor risks and ensure decent work, including in agricultural supply chains.

Further delaying the reform process will jeopardize the momentum to encourage responsible sourcing by global brands. Uzbekistan has developed a vertically integrated textile industry, which provides global brands with unprecedented opportunities for full visibility and traceability of cotton supply chains. But to unlock the full potential of its newly developed textile industry, Uzbekistan should demonstrate tangible progress towards compliance with international standards.

"Protection and respect of workers' and farmers' rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining are essential to encourage brands to source cotton products from Uzbekistan," said Nate Herman, Senior Vice President, Policy, American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA). "Not only is this the right thing to do and built into brands’ vendor contracts, but growing regulations worldwide require brands to ensure the protection and respect of workers’ rights."

"Through our engagement with the Uzbek industry to inform the concept of a pilot program for responsible sourcing, we have encountered some encouraging signs of good labor practices, which responsible sourcing would help expand, strengthen, and maintain", said Raluca Dumitrescu, Senior Coordinator of the Cotton Campaign. "But without a broader enabling environment for labor rights, being able to successfully identify and advance good practices at individual producers is challenging. To support our joint goal to encourage responsible sourcing, the government and industry should take steps to incorporate a labor rights-centered approach across all aspects of the production system.”

"Enabling responsible sourcing from Uzbekistan would benefit all Uzbek industry actors: cotton companies and smaller textile producers, as well as farmers and workers at all stages of production," said Bennett Freeman, Cotton Campaign co-founder and former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. "For this to become a reality, Uzbekistan must show political will and accelerate the reform process by introducing broader reforms to protect workers and farmers."


The Cotton Campaign is a coalition of human and labor rights NGOs, independent trade unions, brand and retail associations, responsible investor organizations, supply chain transparency groups, and academic partners, united to end forced labor and promote decent work for cotton workers in Central Asia. 

Global Labor Justice - International Labor Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF) is a newly merged organization that brings strategic capacity to cross-sectoral work on global value chains and labor migration corridors. GLJ-ILRF is coordinating and hosting the Cotton Campaign.

Uzbek Forum for Human Rights is a Berlin-based NGO dedicated to improving the human rights situation in Uzbekistan and strengthening and promoting civil society. Uzbek Forum has conducted independent monitoring of the Uzbek cotton harvest every year since 2010.

American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA) is an American industry trade group representing more than 1,000 world famous clothing, footwear, and sewn products brands and their suppliers.