Cotton

Uzbekistan's cotton industry relies on state-orchestrated forced labor of children and adults.

Uzbekistan, located in Central Asia, is one of the largest exporters of cotton in the world. For decades, the government of Uzbekistan, under President Islam Karimov, has forced adults and children as young as 10 to pick cotton under appalling conditions each harvest season. Provincial government offices order schoolteachers to close schools and enforce quotas in the cotton fields. The local authorities send government and private business employees to pick cotton, in order to meet cotton production quotas. The Uzbek government combines these orders with threats, detains and tortures Uzbek activists seeking to monitor the situation, and refuses to address the problem of forced labor.

Forced labor and child labor in the cotton sector of Uzbekistan is unique to the world: it is a state-controlled system, under the direction of a president in power since the end of the Soviet Union.

Every year the government of Uzbekistan forcibly mobilizes more than a million children, teachers, public servants and employees of private businesses for the manual harvesting of cotton. The Uzbek government requires farmers to grow cotton, and local provincial government offices (khokimiyats) forcibly mobilize adults and children to harvest cotton and meet assigned quotas. Children and adults are also forced to weed and prepare cotton fields in the springtime.

Threats of expulsion from school keep children in the fields despite the hazardous nature of the work and receiving little or no financial benefit. Adults are threatened with the loss of employment, pensions and child benefits if they refuse to work. The coercion used to ensure that children and adults participate in the cotton harvest stems directly from regional and local government officials.

Profits of the Uzbek cotton sector support only the Karimov government. The government only accounts for cotton income in the extra-budgetary “Agricultural Fund,” and only the highest-level government officials have knowledge of how the proceeds are used. Uzbek farmers are forced to meet state-established cotton quotas, purchase inputs from one state-owned enterprise, and sell the cotton to a state-owned enterprise at artificially low prices, under threat losing usage of the land. The system traps farmers in poverty, and the state profits from high-priced sales to global buyers.

Forced-labor produced cotton from Uzbekistan is exported primarily to China and Bangladesh, where it enters into global supply chains of brand-name retail and apparel companies. Companies based in China purchased over half of Uzbekistan’s cotton exports in 2013, and over one-third of all cotton in Bangladesh’s apparel industry is from Uzbekistan.

The administration of President Islam Karimov detains, tortures, and exiles Uzbek citizens who call for recognition of human rights, violating their human rights and denying freedoms of speech and the press.

The Uzbek-government forced labor system violates the human rights of Uzbek citizens and condemns future generations to a cycle of poverty. The practice violates Uzbek labor laws and fundamental international labor and human rights conventions ratified by the Uzbek government. The state-controlled system of forced labor blatantly violates the international convention against trafficking in persons and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

For governments: It is incumbent on governments to utilize their diplomatic and economic leverage to build political will in the government of Uzbekistan to end the forced labor system.

  1. Call on the Uzbek government to accept ILO monitoring of the cotton harvest that includes: Tripartite oversight and selection of monitors by the ILO, IOE and ITUC; Participation of independent Uzbek civil society; A scope that includes both forced labour and the worst forms of child labour; Unfettered access for monitoring all situations related to the cotton industry; Examination of multinational enterprises operating in the cotton and textile industries or otherwise involved in the cotton harvest; and Publically available findings.
  2. The United States government and European Union should withdraw generalized system of preferences for Uzbekistan until the Uzbek government demonstrates that it meets GSP conditionality to protect fundamental human rights.
  3. The United States government should enforce the Tariff Act, which prohibits the importation of goods made with forced labor, by denying imports of cotton from Uzbekistan until the Uzbek government ends forced labor.
  4. The governments of the Republic of Korea, the United States and all member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development should fulfill their duty to require firms headquartered in their respective countries to meet their human rights due diligence duties in their operations in Uzbekistan. While all OECD governments have committed to ensuring that businesses headquartered in their country respect human rights throughout their operations and supply chains, the risk of inaction is particularly high for South Korea and the United States.

Korean businesses account for an estimated 30% of investment in Uzbekistan’s textile sector. Not only is Daewoo International Corporation processing more cotton in Uzbekistan than any other firm, but the Korean state-owned enterprise Korea Minting & Security Printing Corporation (KOMSCO) is producing cotton pulp in Uzbekistan that is used to produce currency for the Republic of Korea.

General Motors Corporation, Coca-Cola, Nukem Inc. and the Central Asia Seed Company (CASC) are among the US companies operating in Uzbekistan. CASC is a subsidiary of Elsut International, Inc. that has purchased cotton seed from the state-order system of cotton production, which is underpinned by forced labor. GM Uzbekistan is a joint venture between GM and the state-owned OJSC UzAvtosanaot, and GM Uzbekistan workers have reported that they have been forced to work in the cotton fields during the annual harvest.

For companies: Businesses have a responsibility to conduct due diligence that ensures human rights are respected in their supply chains, even if they have not contributed directly to the rights violation. Since slavery-like practices are used in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields, businesses must avoid using Uzbek cotton in their supply chains until the use of forced labor in the Uzbekistan cotton sector is ended.

  1. Sign the Company Pledge against forced labor of children and adults in the cotton sector of Uzbekistan. Signing the Pledge demonstrates a company commitment to respecting human rights and is also an important public denunciation of forced labor. However, this is the very first step. Therefore, after signing the Pledge, companies must follow up with actions to implement the commitment.
  2. Implement the Pledge:
  • Establish a company policy that prohibits the use of Uzbekistan’s cotton and prohibits business with companies that are either invested in the cotton sector in Uzbekistan or using Uzbekistan’s cotton, including explicitly all companies of Daewoo International Corporation, Indorama Corporation, and others operating in Uzbekistan and listed here;
  • Incorporate language into vendor agreements and purchase orders that effectively prohibits suppliers from doing business with all companies that are either invested in the cotton sector in Uzbekistan or using its cotton;
  • Require suppliers, suppliers’ subsidiaries and suppliers affiliates to a) establish a company policy that prohibits the use of cotton from Uzbekistan and prohibits business with companies that are either invested in the cotton sector in Uzbekistan or using its cotton, including including explicitly all companies of Daewoo International Corporation, Indorama Corporation, and others operating in Uzbekistan and listed here, and b) incorporate language into vendor agreements and purchase orders that effectively prohibits their suppliers from doing business with all companies that are either invested in the cotton sector in Uzbekistan or using its cotton;
  • Remove companies that are either invested in the cotton sector in Uzbekistan or using its cotton, including all companies of Daewoo International Corporation, Indorama Corporation, and others operating in Uzbekistan and listed here, from the company’s supplier database, and lock out of the company’s supplier database suppliers that have not fully complied with point 3;
  • Verify compliance with the company policy by incorporating a check on implementation of the ban on business with companies that are either invested in the cotton sector in Uzbekistan or using its cotton into supplier social compliance audits; and
  • Public release documentation of these steps.

Join people around the world in calling on an end to forced labor in the cotton industry.

Call on the European Union to remove trade preferences for cotton products from Uzbekistan while forced labor continues.

The single biggest destination for Uzbek cotton is the European market. Despite strong condemnation from the European Union over the use of child slavery in Uzbek cotton production, the EU continues to allow the Government of Uzbekistan to benefit from reduced trading tariffs for its cotton imports to the EU despite its own rules that these benefits should be withdrawn.

Join tens of thousands of concerned citizens in calling upon the European Union to implement its own rules and immediately remove Uzbekistan’s preferential trade tariffs for cotton imported to the EU in light of the ongoing use of state-sponsored child slavery in the country’s cotton industry.

Ask the South Korean state-owned KOMSCO to stop buying forced-labor cotton from Uzbekistan, which it uses to make Korean currency.

Take a look behind the scenes in the cotton industry.

White Gold - The true cost of cotton | Environmental Justice Foundation

Testimony to the US Congress concerning Uzbekistan's ranking in the Trafficking in Persons Report 2013 | ILRF

Cotton in Context: A conversation with experts on Uzbekistan | European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights

The Cotton Campaign is a global coalition of human rights NGOs, trade unions, business associations and investors coalesced to end forced labor of children and adults in the cotton sector of Uzbekistan.

We advocate with governments, companies and investors to use their leverage with the government of Uzbekistan to end this ongoing, systematic human rights violation. 

Lead organizations in the Cotton Campaign coalition include: Advocates for Public Interest Law, AFL-CIO, American Apparel and Footwear Association, American Federation of Teachers, Anti-Slavery International, Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, Boston Common Asset Management, Calvert Investments, European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, Inkota-netzwerk e.V., International Labor Rights Forum, National Retail Federation, Open Society Foundations, Retail Industry Leaders Association, Responsible Sourcing Network, Solidarity Center, Stop the Traffik Australia, Uniting Church in Australia, US Fashion Industry Association, and Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights.

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