Uzbek Cotton is Free from Systemic Child Labour and Forced Labour

·         Per the International Labour Organization, “Uzbek Cotton is Free from Systemic Child Labour and Forced Labour.”

The Numbers: ILO Estimates of Forced Labor Worldwide -

2021:       27.6 million

2016:       24.9 million

2011:       20.9 million

What They Mean:

A grim series of statistics, drawn from last week’s International Labour Organization report on worldwide forced labor in 2021:

“49.6 million people were living in modern slavery in 2021, of which 27.6 million were in forced labour and 22 million in forced marriage. Of the 27.6 million people in forced labour, 17.3 million are exploited in the private sector; 6.3 million in forced commercial sexual exploitation, and 3.9 million in forced labour imposed by states.”

The 27.6 million total — up by 2.7 million from the 24.9 million estimated in the ILO's 2017 report — combines several different conditions under the broad term "forced labor."  The most common of these, found in 36% of cases, involves workers trapped in jobs by withholding of pay; others involve debt bondage, entrapment of migrant workers, threats of violence by criminal enterprises, and in 1% of cases, chattel slavery. Reacting to this report, the U.S., European Union, and Japanese Trade and Labor ministers express joint commitment “to eradicating all forms of forced labour, including state-sponsored forced labour, from our rules-based multilateral trading system, and resolve to strengthen national and international efforts to meet this commitment.”

How exactly would they do this? Perhaps more fundamentally, would “removing forced labor products from international trade flows” also eliminate forced labor as such, or simply shift the destination of the products? In thinking through these questions, it might be useful to look at a recent example of large-scale success: the elimination of a state-run program of seasonal forced labor in cotton harvesting in Uzbekistan. Some background and tentative conclusions:

Background: Largest of the Central Asian republics at 34 million people, Uzbekistan is the world’s sixth-largest cotton producer, harvesting about 3 million tons per year in a global total usually around 25 million tons. Having served in the Soviet era as the provider of cotton for Russia-based textile mills, as an independent country since 1991 Uzbekistan now grows cotton both for local factories and for exports to clothing-producers elsewhere in the world. 

According to a series of ILO surveys begun in 2016, about 2.8 million people worked in Uzbekistan’s annual autumn cotton harvest in the early 2010s. Roughly 14% of these harvesters — almost 400,000 people – were forced laborers required by local governments to leave school or jobs for unpaid fieldwork during harvest season until regional harvest quotas were filled. The 2016 survey reported that those “most ‘at risk’ of forced labour were medical and education staff, people employed elsewhere, and university/college students.” Five years later, the January 2021 report declared that “systemic forced labour and child labour has come to an end in Uzbekistan,” and the March 2022 report found no return.

Eliminating this system appears to have involved at least three factors: 

(a)   A large and sustained international activist effort through the “Cotton Campaign” involving businesses, labor unions, and human rights groups, which provided information on forced labor practices in the cotton harvest and pressured textile and apparel industry buyers worldwide not to use Uzbek cotton.

(b)   International government pressures, in the U.S. case including human rights reports published by the State and Labor Departments, and a ‘review’ of the tariff waivers Uzbekistan received through the Generalized System of Preferences entailing possible revocation.

(c)   Contingent factors, in particular the death in office of post-Soviet leader Islam Karimov and his replacement by a new leader, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, whose government hoped to avoid the reputational and potential economic damage associated with forced labor and was willing to put sustained effort, with ILO advice and monitoring, into reshaping the cotton industry.

Tentative conclusions: In drawing lessons from this experience, it's likely important to be aware that the term "forced labor" covers many different forms of coercion, and these may require different approaches. The Uzbek cotton harvesting system appears an unusual, both as a state-run program and as one designed mainly for economic/industrial purposes.  The policies that succeeded in eliminating it may be less useful with respect to state forced labor systems used by militaries or for other political purposes. State-required forced labor in turn is a relatively small part of forced labor generally, accounting in the ILO’s estimates for about 15% of the worldwide 27.6 million forced laborers. Most forced labor (see data below) appears to be in small-scale private businesses and criminal enterprises, where the policy challenge will often be effective law enforcement, often at local levels.  But some general features of the effort to eliminate forced labor in Uzbekistan's cotton harvest may be generally useful.

Publicity: The Cotton Campaign’s work, and the publication of credible data and reports by the U.S. government and ILO, appear to have had a major impact on both international opinion and Uzbek government policy. The U.S.' GSP review likely added to this; its economic importance was modest — in the mid-2010s it applied to $2.5 million in imports of dried peppers, apricots, and other agricultural goods, out of $100 million to $300 million in annual Uzbek exports to the U.S. — but the reputational impact of the case and potential loss of benefits may have been high. This is especially relevant since, as our January report on GSP notes, the system lapsed almost two years ago and is not now available for the six Ministers’ efforts on forced labor, but can be restored whenever Congress acts.

Patience and persistence: The Cotton Campaign began working in 2007, and remained focused specifically on Central Asian cotton harvesting for a decade before the change of government in Uzbekistan and the subsequent relatively rapid abolition of forced labor in cotton harvesting.

Optimism: In this case, some combination of government policies, activism, and changing perceptions within the Uzbek government worked. Different circumstances elsewhere may require different methods, but the fact of one success means others are also possible.