Forced Labor, Child Labor Still Heavily Tied to Uzbek Cotton and Fast Fashion

Mary-Kate Olsen and Ashley Olsen’s award-winning label, The Row, sources its cotton from South Carolina. This is a relative rarity – even in the world of high fashion. In fact, most fashion brands – in attempts to offer affordable prices – look abroad for cotton, and the conditions in many of the far-flung locations where cotton is harvested are anything but pretty. Uzbekistan, for instance, an increasingly significant exporter of cotton, is making headlines for its consistent utilization of forced and child labor in connection with the harvesting of cotton.

According to Harvest Report 2016, a study that was recently published by the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, an NGO promoting and protecting human rights, Uzbekistan plays a central role in the production of cotton on an international scale. In 2016 alone, the country produced 3.35 million tons of cotton, falling not so far behind India, the world's biggest cotton producer, which is expected to export 6.8 million tons this year.

The shocking part is not the amount of exportable cotton coming out of Uzbekistan, as the country has steadily been climbing the list of largest producers/exporters of cotton, rebounding from a drop in demand in the 1990’s. Instead, the ugly truth comes by way of how the cotton is harvested and in particular, who harvests it. Imagine a mandatory military draft – of adults and children – except instead of going to war, you’re sent to pick cotton. That is how cotton has been procured for years, including 2016, in the Central Asian nation of Uzbekistan.

In order to monopolize on its main cash crop, cotton in Uzbekistan is grown on government-controlled farms. According to the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights’ 2016 Harvest report: “While a small amount [of cotton] was mechanically harvested, and some was picked by truly voluntary labor, the vast majority of the days in the cotton fields were put in by forced laborers or day laborers people paid out of their own pockets to avoid doing the work themselves.”

Shifts commonly consist of 25-40 days with such mobilization forced under threat of penalty, such as the repossession of land, similar to a 5th Amendment Taking (also known as eminent domain), in the instance of farmers not meeting their quota. 

The report, which was published in conjunction with the International Labor Organization, notes: “A key indicator that participation in the cotton harvest was mandatory and not voluntary is the fact that people had to ensure that they or someone else picked cotton in their names. They were forced to go to the fields by their institutions—schools, universities, hospitals, or mahallas—so that the institutions could report to higher authorities that they had fulfilled their mobilization requirements.”

In developing its study, the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights spoke to a significant number of individuals subjected to the systematic practice of forced labor. Numerous interviewees stated that that while cotton picking is “vaunted as civic work, it is actually mandatory.” Others stated, “We would pick cotton but only for those who pay well.” Regarding the mobilization, yet another source told the Uzbek-German Forum: “No one has any motivation to pick cotton of their own will because it pays very little. You bend over all day to pick 50 kilos of cotton and get paid only 8,000 soum (approximately $1.50 USD).”

FORCED CHILD LABOR

The U.S. Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor and Forced Labor names nine countries with documented incidences of forced labor and 18 countries with documented child labor in their cotton or cottonseed sectors – among them is one that historically has been the most unbearable for children: the Republic of Uzbekistan.

While reports note that change is underway in Uzbekistan, actual practices suggest otherwise. For instance, in 2015 alone, between 1.5 and 2 million children were forced to harvest cotton. Such practices are being observed despite the fact that numerous international treaties, to which Uzbekistan is a party, absolutely prohibit forced labor.

A study released in recent years by the Responsible Sourcing Network, entitled “From the Field: Travels of Uzbek Cotton Through the Value Chain,” echoes this devastating practice, stating: “Uzbekistan, listed by the U.S. Department of Labor for both forced and child labor, is the only country where children are organized and forced by the government to harvest cotton, which earns the Uzbek government over one billion dollars annually.”

That same study goes on to state: “They close schools from September to November, and children across the country, some as young as 7, are placed on buses and taken to fields where they work full days without adequate food, clean water, safety protection, and medical care.”

Of child labor, one schoolteacher told Uzbek-German Forum researchers: “We know [about laws prohibiting the use of forced labor]. And that’s why they stopped forcing out the younger classes for overnight shifts picking. It’s forbidden to send children to do hard labor? Well, that’s why, as much as they are able, colleges and schools try to comply with that rule. But where cotton is concerned, we can’t do anything. We send them to the harvest anyway.”

And in an effort to cover up such forced labor mobilizations – particularly when children are involved, Uzbek-German Forum researchers “observed intensification of efforts to make participation in the cotton harvest appear voluntary.” Students were forced to “cover up their participation in the harvest by falsifying attendance records and curriculum journals.”

Another forced laborer, a doctor from Andijan, said: “Before we were sent to the fields they made every employee sign a statement that ‘I am going to the cotton harvest by my own volition, I will not organize weddings or celebrations [during the harvest], I will not go anywhere else, I will not even go out for recreation.’ We all wrote these statements by hand and signed them ourselves because it also included the statement that ‘otherwise I am prepared to accept any punishment by the administration.’ And so I signed it even though I didn’t want to because if they fire me, where will I go at my age?”

THE FAST FASHION CONNECTION

Unsurprisingly, the main importers of Uzbek cotton are located in Bangladesh, China, and India, accounting for an estimated 70% of exports. These are the countries where the vast majority of fast fashion brands source their garments and accessories. Traditional fast fashion brands, H&M, Forever 21, Nasty Gal, Zara, and Uniqlo, and newer ones, such as Missguided, as well as any brand from Banana Republic and Gap to truly massive enterprises like Wal-Mart, have all been tied to manufacturing in the aforementioned locations, suggesting that there is a very high likelihood that their wares contain Uzbek cotton.

Per Responsible Sourcing Network, “Presence of Uzbek cotton in a product implies both a social and an environmental risk.”

Checked your clothing labels and Uzbekistan is not listed as a source of its textiles? Unfortunately, that does not necessarily mean you’re in the clear, as most brands are fully abreast of the bad press that is associated with sourcing from Uzbekistan and have taken measures to disguise it. “Uzbek cotton fiber can be disguised as it is often mixed with lower grade fibers of different origin to create a more consistent quality yarn that can be used in a large array of goods,” says the Responsible Sourcing Network study.

STRATEGIES FOR CHANGE

Patricia Jurewicz, the Founder and Director of Responsible Sourcing Network, set forth a number of avenues for change in her 2015 report, Reducing Child Labor in Uzbekistan.

In developing countries, where the majority of cotton is still harvested by hand, several different initiatives focused on training and empowering farmers have come about in recent years. While these efforts are improving the lives of farmers and farm workers, there are still hundreds of thousands of people who are forced to toil in cotton fields, many of them children.

Change can be accomplished by coordinating NGO and corporate activities, highlighting the root causes of the problem in local and international media, and implementing multiple strategies simultaneously. In addition, it is imperative to utilize the structures of international institutions and governments, provide long-term funding to effective NGOs and to their collaboration, drive the market toward ethically-harvested cotton, and establish systems embedded into value chains that allow brands to identify and avoid child labor.

Advocates committed to ending child labor in the harvesting and processing of other commodities can apply several or all of the strategies outlined here. In fact, many of the efforts to address forced child labor in the Uzbek cotton industry have been adopted from advancements in the cocoa, conflict minerals, tomato, and other commodity industries.

Although the value chains of each good differ, they can all be mapped, key points of leverage can be identified, and auditing systems can be established to move the market away from exploitative practices. Through this work, Responsible Sourcing Network has noticed there are many passionate people in different stakeholder roles who want to abolish child labor. If that energy and commitment can be coordinated, structured, and maintained over time, then eliminating this abusive practice worldwide is indeed possible.