AAFA says that better protection for workers’ and farmers’ rights in Uzbekistan will encourage more apparel brands to source cotton products from the country, as a new report alleges forced labour in the 2023 cotton harvest.

AAFA’s senior vice president of policy, Nate Herman explained: “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. 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.”

Independent monitoring of Uzbekistan’s annual cotton harvest in 2023 shows that forced labour has been used in regions with a shortage of voluntary pickers.

The worker shortage was caused by a combination of relatively low pay for cotton picking compared to other agricultural work and migration into Russia and elsewhere after the pandemic.

Published by the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, a member of the Cotton Campaign, the report says that some employees of state organisations were forced to pick cotton or pay for a replacement picker as a result of the shortage.

Three main factors were found to have led to this use of forced labour in the 2023 cotton harvest in Uzbekistan:

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By GlobalData
  • continued government control of harvest and de facto cotton production targets
  • little to no bargaining power for farmers, resulting in delayed or failed payments for cotton delivered to companies, restricting their ability to pay high enough wages to cotton pickers
  • a lack of functioning mechanisms to raise grievances and a lack of freedom of association protections at workplaces, including state organisations

The report says: “Despite reforms to privatise the cotton sector through cotton clusters (vertically integrated producers of cotton and cotton products) and commitments to abolish production quotas that were identified as key drivers of forced labour, the government has continued to impose de facto quotas for cotton production for farmers. Clusters therefore benefit from a guaranteed supply of a predetermined amount of cotton delivered by farmers contracted to supply them.”

The report also describes ongoing retaliation against workers at a cotton company in Indorama Agro, who are seeking to organise and improve their working conditions through collective bargaining.

The Cotton Campaign recommends that the Uzbek government and local cotton companies take “immediate action” to reinforce reform and create an industry that meets international labour standards.

The campaign group says Uzbekistan needs to “show political will” to accelerate the changes needed.

Allison Gill, legal director at the GLJ-ILRF said: “Shortages of voluntary pickers and other problems are a stress test to the system. The fact that officials resorted to forced labour shows that the current reforms aren’t enough and the danger of serious backsliding remains. 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 labour and achieve decent work.”

The publishing of the report saw Uztextileprom Association tell Just Style it welcomed a probe into its reforms.

Earlier in 2024, global stakeholders signed a two-year memorandum of cooperation to improve working conditions and eradicate forced labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton and textile production.