The following first appeared as a letter to the editor of the Washington Post on January 15, 2015, here.
The Jan. 11 Book World review of Sven Beckert’s “Empire of Cotton” [“Torments and benefits of cotton capitalism”] presented an impressive account of the history of state-supported violence in the cotton sector.
This tragic history continues today. The government of Uzbekistan forces millions of citizens to pick cotton, and it forces farmers to deliver production quotas, all under threat of punishment. The income from this state-orchestrated labor disappears into a secret fund, benefiting only a small cadre of government officials. Uzbekistan is the world’s fifth-largest cotton exporter. Buyers, especially commodity traders, disregard their complicity in forced labor.
While many retailers have pledged to avoid Uzbek cotton, the clothes we wear remain tainted with cotton from forced labor. In Uzbekistan, desperation feeds emigration, primarily to Russia, for work. Global pressure on the Uzbek government has reduced its use of child labor, yet the government continues systematic forced labor and jailing of citizens who document or report it.
Much more is needed before the people of Uzbekistan are free from state-forced labor and consumers can be confident the curse of violence in cotton is history.