During the 2022 cotton harvest, Uzbek Forum monitors found no evidence of systematic, government-imposed forced labor for the second consecutive year. While this is a strong indication that efforts by the government to eliminate child and adult forced labor have taken hold, isolated incidents of forced labor and extortion to pay for the cotton harvest were identified in some districts with low populations and insufficient numbers of pickers and during the later stages of the harvest when less cotton in the fields makes recruitment of voluntary pickers more challenging. In general however, wages for pickers were sufficient to recruit adequate numbers to the fields, providing important supplementary income to rural communities.
Government officials were responsive to reports of rights violations and, based on interviews with pickers, officials, and farmers, it is clear that the Ministry of Labor has demonstrated its commitment to the prohibition of forced and child labor in the cotton fields.
The monitoring findings of the 2022 harvest are broadly similar to those of the 2021 harvest in terms of both positive aspects and remaining, entrenched risks for coercive labor and exploitation of farmers. Uzbek Forum found that the government maintains strict oversight over the organization of the harvest with de facto quotas, now called district forecasts, still in place. Despite privatization of the agriculture sector, hokimiyats (local administrations) continue to hold regular meetings to exert pressure on employees of mahalla (neighborhood councils) and farmers to recruit sufficient numbers of pickers and meet quotas.
Whereas in previous years, social media channels were overwhelmed with reports of forced labor, these complaints have been replaced by appeals from hundreds of farmers throughout the country in relation to illegal land confiscations and exploitative contractual relations with vertically-integrated cotton companies that are locally known as clusters. The obligation of farmers to deliver their cotton to a particular cluster, usually in their district, deprives them of the necessary bargaining power to negotiate fair prices and conditions. Farmers who attempt to avoid the system by establishing cooperatives are at risk of having their cotton seized by officials for the benefit of clusters, their land leases arbitrarily terminated and have on occasions even been subjected to physical abuse.
The lack of autonomy of farmers is in part due to the absence of independent trade unions and associations that represent their interests. Restrictions on an enabling environment for civil society and workers that embraces the fundamental freedoms of association, assembly, and expression continue to present risks for investors, brands and retailers considering sourcing cotton produced in Uzbekistan. Without independent monitoring and reporting, functioning grievance mechanisms and worker voice channels, companies doing business in Uzbekistan expose themselves to limitations on due diligence that ensure they are complying with ethical codes of conduct and national supply chain laws.