Update: Forced Labour in Uzbekistan

A young boy carrying cotton. From cbc.ca (Reuters/Shamil Zhumatov).

A young boy carrying cotton. From cbc.ca (Reuters/Shamil Zhumatov).

Uzbekistan is the second largest exporter of cotton in the world.  Unfortunately, this cotton comes at a high price.  Thanks to a number of campaigns, it is no secret that Uzbekistan uses forced labour especially child labour during the harvesting seasons.  When it’s time to harvest the cotton, the government shuts down schools and public offices while people are forced into the fields to pick cotton, often for long hours with no protective gear, inadequate food and water.  According to some accounts, children as young as seven are forced into the fields.  Those who do not meet quotas are denied access to utilities and government services such as electricity, gas or water.  This large scale mobilization of labour benefits a small number of large landowners and political elites who stand to make a large profit from the cotton.  This concentration of wealth was further condensed following the fall 2008 harvest when the government forcibly confiscated farmland.  Corruption obviously plays a large role in this system as The Economist (June 11th, 2009) has pointed out:

“Ostensibly to rationalise agricultural production, Mr Karimov decreed in October that landholdings should be consolidated. This gave local governors—the hakims, who often rule with an iron fist—a pretext to seize land and pass it on to cronies or those wealthy enough to offer bribes. In the past decade many farmers had signed 49-year leases, as Soviet-era collective farms were dismantled.”

So, what is being done to improve this situation?  There has been a large scale mobilization to boycott Uzbek cotton.  Over the past year, a number of large companies have heeded the call including Walmart, The Gap, Tesco, C&A, Levis Strauss, Marks & Spencer and Continental Clothing.  In response, the Uzbek government decreed the prohibition of child labour and has ratified ILO conventions regarding child labour and minimum working age (conventions 182 & 138).  Regardless, the forced labour continues.  While the government denies the existence of child labour, reports from Uzbekistan tell a different story.  This has spurred a group of institutional investors to write a letter to the ILO’s Director General urging him to take action on the matter.  In this letter they write:

“With the fall 2009 cotton harvest fast approaching, we have urged the GOU [Government of Uzbekistan] to invite the ILO to deploy an initial expert observer and assessment mission immediately as a prelude to long-term engagement by the ILO,  including monitoring on a multi-year basis.  We understand that there have been consultations between the Uzbek government and the ILO in March and again in May.  We urge the ILO to be prepared to accept such an invitation if it is forthcoming, provided that it is coupled with such a public acknowledgment of the problem and a commitment to work with the ILO on its terms—not only to implement the conventions but to curtail forced child labor in the cotton sector beginning immediately.

The Cotton Campaign blog is a great resource on the Uzbek cotton industry and actions taken to end forced labour including an excellent FAQ section.  Other resources include the International Labor Rights Forum which has a page dedicated to what you can do.

Uzbekistan is not the only place where this happens, but this campaign is gaining ground.  If this story has a happy ending, perhaps it will be a message to the rest of the countries engaging in these activities that forced labour is not acceptable.

Nadira Lamrad

Nadira is the co-founder of Social Alterations. She is currently completing her final year as a PhD Candidate at City University of Hong Kong.

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3 thoughts on “Update: Forced Labour in Uzbekistan

  1. lvs

    This is terrible. But if you said stop working on the cotton fields would those people have a fair chance at a decent life?

  2. nadiralamrad Post author

    Hi lvs,

    Interesting question. The workers may get paid, but it is a pitiful wage. Regardless of the pay, the workers were doing other jobs or were in school before being forced by the government into the fields. For example, students who are in the middle of semester are pulled out of school during the harvesting season and are forced into the fields. Teachers, as public servants, are also pulled out of their jobs and forced into the fields. So, it’s not really an issue of survival for the workers. They don’t need this job. On the contrary, it’s the large landowners and the government officials that need the workers to maintain their high profit margins. Sadly, while kids and adults alike are forced into the fields for little pay, there is a massive unemployment problem that the Uzbek government is not addressing.

    I don’t think that Uzbek cotton needs to be written off completely. What I do think; and I agree with the investors’ letter on this; is that the sector needs to be completely reformed under the supervision of an independent third party such as the ILO, Amnesty International, or Human Rights Watch. In fact, a monitoring committee composed of representatives from different groups would probably make this process much more reliable and transparent. However, the incentive for the Uzbek government to accept and push for this reform needs to be there. That incentive comes in the form of a boycott. Money does talk in this case.


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