Surrounded by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan is the former Soviet country Uzbekistan. While most people in the US might not think too much about Uzbekistan, there’s a good chance that you may be wearing a little piece of this country right now.
Uzbekistan is the world’s second largest exporter of cotton. Up to one third of the country’s workforce labors on cotton farms and the majority of the cotton is picked by hand. While the cotton industry is very profitable for a few large landowners and political elites, the vast majority of cotton farmers live in dire poverty. Farmers are forced to grow cotton and the money is appropriated by the ruling regime. The official prices farmers receive are one third of the true value, but they often receive much less. Independent union representation is nonexistent for workers. Additionally, the overall human rights situation is extremely poor which makes any organizing or expression of dissent extremely difficult. For example, today marks the four year anniversary of a notorious massacre where Uzbek government forces killed hundreds of unarmed civilians who participated in a mass peaceful protest in the eastern city of Andijan.
Thousands of children as young as seven work in the cotton fields instead of attending school in order to meet government-imposed cotton production quotas. Even children who are enrolled in rural schools are often dispatched to work in the fields when their schools are closed down during harvest time by government officials. Some children are conscripted to work in remote areas where they are forced to stay in dormitories while they pick cotton. Children are even compelled to apply toxic pesticides in parts of Uzbekistan without appropriate protective gear. Children work in the heat, often for 10 hours a day and only have access to unsafe water. Children who do not meet their production quotas can be expelled from school and running away results in strict punishment. Check out this excellent report from the BBC for more information.
Courageous human rights activists from within Uzbekistan have called upon the world community to boycott Uzbek cotton, and stop funding the bloody Karimov regime. A number of companies have begun to respond to this call for action. The International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) is working with NGOs, socially responsible investors and companies to end these abuses in Uzbekistan’s cotton production. After sending letters to 128 companies selling cotton garments asking them to be transparent in their cotton purchasing and to commit to stop sourcing cotton from Uzbekistan, a number of companies like Wal-Mart, Target, Levi’s, Gap, Limited Brands and H&M all agreed eliminate Uzbek cotton in their supply chains. These companies were joined by powerful industry associations who all sent letters to President Karimov of Uzbekistan protesting these widespread labor rights abuses.
Due to the international pressure, Uzbekistan adopted the ILO Convention on Minimal Age of Employment (ILO 138) and the Convention on Prohibition and Immediate Action for Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor (ILO 182) last year. However, reports from Uzbekistan confirmed that abusive forced child labor continued last year. Additionally, companies like Russell/Fruit of the Loom have still not committed to boycotting Uzbek cotton.
You can take action by asking these companies to stop contributing to the use of forced child labor in Uzbekistan and order a cotton campaign poster from ILRF – find out how to do both here. Purchasing organic and Fair Trade certified cotton products also contributes to higher and safer standards for workers.