Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the extent of forced labor of children and adults in Uzbekistan?
  • Who is responsible for instituting forced labor of children and adults in Uzbekistan?
  • What is the mechanism of coercion?
  • Are existing legal protections sufficient to curb abuses?
  • Who benefits from the institution of forced labor of children and adults?
  • What are the underlying causes of this phenomenon?
  • What must the government of Uzbekistan do to remedy the situation?
  • Child labor and forced labor are used in many developing countries, so why is the situation in Uzbekistan different?
  • Is it true, as the Uzbek government claims, that while child labor was used in its Soviet past, the practice has since ceased?
  • How have Western governments responded to Uzbekistan’s use of forced labor of children and adults?
  • Which countries and companies currently import Uzbek cotton?
  • Are all companies unresponsive to reports of forced labor of children and adults in Uzbekistan?
  • Are international institutions and governments aware of the situation with forced labor of children and adults in Uzbekistan?
  • What should governments do?
  • What should companies do?
  • Would a boycott of Uzbek cotton harm Uzbek farmers and other ordinary citizens?
  • Don’t you have to change the Uzbek people’s attitudes and beliefs about child labor and forced labor in order for this problem to be solved?

What is the extent of forced labor of children and adults in Uzbekistan?

Each autumn, the government of Uzbekistan forcibly mobilizes hundreds of thousands of children, teachers, public servants and private sector employees for the manual harvesting of cotton. The Uzbek government requires farmers to grow cotton, and regional governors (hokims) forcibly mobilize adults and children to harvest cotton and meet assigned quotas. The Uzbek government enforces these orders with threats and administrative pressure; detains and harasses Uzbek activists seeking to monitor the situation; denies access to international press; and continues to refuse to allow the International Labour Organisation to monitor the harvest.

According to surveys and rough calculations in recent years, forced child labor accounts for approximately half of all cotton picked during harvest season in Uzbekistan. School children as young as 10 are ordered to harvest cotton. Children in rural areas are also generally required weed the cotton fields in the Spring season. In total, compulsory work in agriculture requires school children to miss as many as 3-4 months of study each year.

Cotton pickers, including children and adults, are forced to work seven days a week. Children and adults work up to 10 hours a day with only a short break for lunch. Children and adults who do not live close to the harvest camp in the cotton fields in very poor living conditions, including shortages of potable water and inadequate sanitation. Many suffer from malnutrition and lack access to basic medical treatment.

Each day, children and adults are given a quota requiring them to pick between 30 and 100 kg (60-220 lbs) of cotton, and farmers are contractually obligated to grow cotton and meet annual production quotas. If their quota is not met, children are denounced by school administration, and sometimes physically abused. If an adult picker does not meet the daily cotton quota, she may lose money when paying a local person to help meet her quota. Farmers who fail to meet their annual production quotas risk losing the land they farm.  Back to top

Who is responsible for instituting forced labor of children and adults in Uzbekistan?

The exploitation of forced and child labor in Uzbekistan is a deliberate state policy. Compulsory orders to send children and adults to the cotton fields are issued by the administrators of schools, hospitals and other public institutions. The institutions’ administrators  receive unwritten orders from regional governments (hokimiyats), who report directly to the prime minister. The verbal orders are well known to Uzbek citizens, and given Uzbekistan’s strictly centralized system of governance and cotton industry management, one can deduce that the orders originate in the central government. Without instructions from Tashkent, it is inconceivable that schools across the country would be shut down for even a single day or government employees mobilized throughout the country. Back to top

What is the mechanism of coercion?

Fear of administrative punishment compels children, as well as high school, college and university students, to work in the fields. The children and students are threatened with expulsion unless they fulfill their duties to pick cotton. Parents who do not send children to the cotton harvest risk losing state social and welfare benefits. Teachers, doctors, nurses, military and other government employees risk losing their job or cuts to their salary or benefits unless they comply with orders to pick their quota, as established in the annual harvest plan.

During the cotton harvesting season, Uzbekistan is transformed into a virtual labor camp, with children, students and government employees organized into work brigades, living in barracks, and working in cotton fields patrolled by police.

During the harvest, regional hokims oversee farmers’ production rates closely. According to several activists, regional hokims convene daily meetings to receive reports from all the farmers in his region. At these meetings, the regional hokims are known to verbally and physically abuse farmers who are under-producing. Back to top

Are existing legal protections sufficient to curb abuses?

Yes, but these legal provisions are not enforced, and the use of forced labor of children and adults in the cotton sector of Uzbekistan is continuous and systematic.

Forced labor and child labor are prohibited under national law, which establishes 16 as the minimum age for employment. Uzbekistan has adopted a number of laws that are in accordance with international labor standards. These statutes set the framework for decent work for adults and prohibit the use of child labor. Legally, 16 is the minimum age of employment. Before this age they can be employed only in the context of school-related activity, and for no more than 15 days. In all cases, children are not allowed to work more than four hours per day.

Uzbekistan has ratified ILO Conventions No. 29 on Forced Labour (1992), No. 105 on the Abolition of Forced Labour (1997), No.182 on the Eradication of the Worst Forms of Child Labour (2008), and No. 138 on Minimum Age (2008).

However, neither aforementioned national laws nor Uzbekistan’s ILO commitments have curbed widespread use of forced labor of children and adults. In September 2008 the Cabinet of Ministers adopted a resolution and the National Action Plan aimed for the implementation of C182 and C138. But these documents didn’t stipulate cooperation with ILO and any mechanism of independent monitoring of how the conventions are being implemented. A few weeks after the resolution school children, students and government employees were, as usual prior and since the legislative measure, sent to pick cotton. Since 2009 the ILO has called on the Uzbek government to respond to continued reports from workers, employers, and civil society of systematic and persistent use of forced labor of children and adults in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields. Since 2010 the ILO tripartite supervisory body has called on the GOU to invite a high-level tripartite mission to conduct unfettered monitoring during the cotton harvest. In 2012, the ILO offered the Uzbek government an opportunity to take an initial step by inviting an ILO technical assistance team that would monitor during the harvest. The GOU steadfastly refuses to grant access to the ILO.

The gap between written law and practice continues to demonstrate that the rule of law is nonexistent in Uzbekistan, and none of ILO conventions ratified by Uzbekistan are considered seriously by its government. None of them have affected the real situation. Back to top

Who benefits from the institution of forced labor of children and adults?

The government is the sole beneficiary of the use of forced labor of children and adults in its cotton sector.

The cotton sector in Uzbekistan is strictly managed by the central government in Tashkent. Uzbek farmers produce cotton under conditions of bonded labor for the government of Uzbekistan. Cotton and grain planting is mandated on two-thirds of the best arable lands in Uzbekistan. Farmers have neither the right to choose which crops to plant, nor to whom they sell their harvest. The government owns all land, determines the usage of the land, sets production quotas, is the sole buyer of cotton, and sets the price of raw cotton purchased from the farmers. The men and women who farm the state land are contractually obligated to dedicate a certain percentage of the land under their management to cotton production, to produce an annual quota of cotton, and to sell the cotton to the government at the price fixed by the government.

As in Soviet times, the Uzbek government imposes cotton production quotas on all farmers and local governments. The local hokims (governors) are personally responsible for fulfilling these quotas. Farmers cannot trade cotton in the free market at market prices and instead are required to deliver crops to local government cotton gins. Farmers attempting to export produce to neighboring countries are charged with smuggling and face fines and jail.

Cotton is the Government of Uzbekistan’s primary export commodity and main source of revenue. While three trading companies created at the Ministry of Foreign Economic Affairs – Uzprommashimpeks, Uzmarkazimpeks and Uzinterimpeks - trade cotton on world markets, all export revenues remain under direct and strict control of officials appointed by the President.

As the Government of Uzbekistan prevents any transparency in cotton exports, they remain completely unaccountable to the Uzbek public and international observers. No information is made available regarding export revenues or prices Uzbek cotton is sold for in international markets. Even less is known about how cotton revenues are distributed within Uzbekistan, though it is understood that sizable sums are funneled directly to the bank accounts of the President and other high officials. Back to top

What are the underlying causes of this phenomenon?

The primary factor bolstering the institution of forced child labor remains the absence of reform in cotton industry and oppressive state administrative control. The Uzbek government imposes unfairly low procurement prices on cotton, yet sells the cotton at market ones. Under such conditions, cotton farmers and other rural inhabitants employed in the cotton sector are increasingly poverty stricken and resort to economic migration, even to the cotton fields in neighboring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan where they can earn decent wages.

Given these economic conditions, the Uzbek government prefers employing forced labor to implementing reforms. It relies on administrative and other coercion, including the use of police and legal prosecutions against farmers who do not strictly follow government edicts and fulfill their expected cotton and grain quotas. Back to top

What must the government of Uzbekistan do to remedy the situation?

The government of Uzbekistan must abolish, on paper and in practice, the use of forced labor of children and adults in the cotton industry. It must stop ordering and sanctioning the closure of schools for the purposes of sending students to the cotton fields and expressly prohibit local governments from ordering high schools (lyceums), colleges and universities to use students for illegal labor practices. It must stop ordering government employees to pick cotton and stop ordering private businesses to contribute resources to the cotton harvest.

To support such prohibitions, the government of Uzbekistan should institute sweeping reforms in the cotton industry. It is insufficient to transform collective farms into private farms if the latter remain deprived of land and production rights. The government must free farmers from harsh administrative regulations and allow market incentives to replace the current system of administrative coercion. The government must abolish compulsory production quotas, allow farmers to manage what crops to cultivate, liberalize and diversify the markets of inputs and outputs, and hold regional and local governments accountable for enforcement of national laws and protection of citizens’ rights. Rather than controlling every aspect of the cotton sector, the government of Uzbekistan should recast its involvement as a regulatory body protecting the rights of all stakeholders, including private farmers and entrepreneurs as well as ordinary farmers and citizens. Back to top

Child labor is used in many developing countries, so why is the situation in Uzbekistan different?

The practice of child labor in the cotton industry in Uzbekistan differs considerably from other developing countries. Child labor in Uzbekistan is not undertaken at the initiative of parents, but orchestrated and mandated by the state, which uses various means of coercion to force children to work in cotton fields. Furthermore, the practice stems from a totalitarian system of governance and economic exploitation which characterizes the Uzbek government. Back to top

Is it true, as the Uzbek government claims, that while child labor was used in its Soviet past, the practice has since ceased?

In Soviet times Uzbekistan achieved a comparatively high level of social and economic development, although these achievements coincided with a number of acute social and environmental factors. Almost half the cotton used to be harvested by machines. Today, as a result of mismanagement, lack of reforms, failed incentive systems and inequitable distribution of cotton revenues, the use of machinery has been reduced to zero.

Nowadays, despite some minor improvements (for instance, the introduction of quality control, packaging and stocking systems), the cotton industry as a whole is regressing. The scale of forced labor has correspondingly increased as mechanization has declined. Declining social and economic conditions related to the regression of the cotton sector have been especially devastating in rural areas. Back to top

How have Western governments responded to Uzbekistan’s use of forced child labor?

The response from West has been so far inadequate. The United States and European Union cover Uzbek cotton and textiles under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), which provides import tax exemptions to poor developing countries and conditions the exemptions on compliance with fundamental labor standards. In Europe, Uzbek cotton was granted GSP status in June 2005, just after the Andijan massacre in which Uzbek security forces fired upon unarmed protesters killing hundreds. The GSP was intended to address imbalances in trade relationships between North and South, but in the case of Uzbekistan, it rather reinforces social injustices. GSP makes the kleptocratic Uzbek regime even more wealthy while the systemic abuse of child labor is perpetuated. In the US, a petition to revoke benefits under the GSP program has been pending since 2007.

The US Tariff Act specifically prohibits imports of goods made wholly or in part with forced labor or child labor. The US government should issue an immediate detention order on all pending and future imports of cotton goods manufactured by Daewoo International Corporation, Indorama Corporation, and other companies processing cotton in Uzbekistan. See the petition to the US government here.

In its 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report, the US government placed Uzbekistan in Tier 3, for governments that do not make significant efforts to eliminate forced labor.

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Which countries and companies currently import Uzbek cotton?

In recent years, Uzbekistan has diverted cotton exports from European to Asian countries, especially China and Bangladesh. However, after being processed in Asia into textile and garments, Uzbek cotton continues to find its way into Western markets.

Seventy-five per cent of cotton produced in Uzbekistan is exported through state-owned companies Uzprommashimpeks, Uzmarkazimpeks and Uzinterimpeks, and the remaining 25% is sold to the state-owned Uzbek Commodity Exchange for domestic sales. Bangladesh is the largest importer of raw Uzbek cotton. Uzbekistan is China’s third largest source of raw cotton and fluctuates between the first and second largest suppliers of raw cotton to Germany and Italy. Russia relies on Uzbekistan for over one-third of its raw cotton imports and over 60% of its yarn imports. In Uzbekistan, foreign companies and the state-owned Ozengilsanoat Association process Uzbek cotton to produce primarily yarn, fabrics and some garments. South Korean and Turkish companies are major investors in cotton processing and manufacturing in Uzbekistan.

Companies most active in buying and trading Uzbek cotton reportedly include: Daewoo International Corporation (Korea), Olam (Singapore), Paul Reinhart AG (Switzerland), ECOM Agroindustrial (Switzerland), Dunavant S.A. (Switzerland), Cargill Cotton (UK), Otto Stadtlander GmbH (Germany). Banks including Citibank, ABN-AMRO, and others provide financial support to importers of Uzbek cotton. Back to top

Are all Western companies unresponsive to reports of forced child labor in Uzbekistan?

No. The cotton trading company Devcot (France) committed not to resume its trade in Uzbekistan until child labor has ended. After reviewing Devcot, the French National Contact Point (NCP) of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has held that the trade in goods produced from forced child labor constitutes a flagrant violation of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, and stated that Devcot has not in violation.

Over 130 brands and retailers have signed the Company Pledge. A growing number of retailers in Europe – Tesco, Marks and Spencer, Debenhams, Sainsbury’s (UK), Marimekko Corporation (Finland), Hennes and Mauritz (Sweden)-  have also announced intentions to exclude Uzbek cotton from their procurement chains. Signing the Pledge demonstrates a company commitment to respecting human rights and is also an important public denunciation of forced labor. However, the public commitment is the very first step. Companies must follow up and implement the Pledge:

  1. 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;
  2. Implement the company policy on Uzbekistan’s cotton by incorporating 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;
  3. 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 explicitly all companies of Daewoo International Corporation, Indorama Corporation, and those companies identified as operating in Uzbekistan listed here, and (b) implement the company policy on Uzbekistan’s cotton by incorporating 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;
  4. Remove all companies of Daewoo International Corporation, Indorama Corporation, and companies operating in Uzbekistan listed here from the company’s supplier database. Lock suppliers out of the company’s supplier database that have not signed the revised vendor agreement and fully complied with point 3;
  5. 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
  6. Release documentation of these steps publicly.

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Are International institutions aware enough of the situation with child labor in Uzbekistan?

In spite the practice of forced child labor continues since the Soviet period it becoming known to the international community only since last 4-5 years when Uzbek human rights activists and journalists decided to break the conspiracy of silence. The lack of international awareness of the situation in Uzbekistan gave the reason for the academics from the School of Oriental and African Studies to qualify the issue as ‘invisible to the world’ (Invisible to the World? The Dynamics of Forced Child Labour in the Cotton Sector of Uzbekistan, London, SOAS, 2008). The International Cotton Advisory Committee was forced to change its position on the issue, from ignoring it to its acknowledgement, when its leaders met in April 2008 with Uzbek activists and experts. By the middle of 2008 only two governments expressed publicly their concerns over the problem. But already in December 2008 when the Human Rights Council considered Uzbekistan according to the Universal Periodic Review 11 states, Council members, commented on this issue.

The International Labour Organization has repeatedly criticised Uzbekistan’s practice of forced labor, including forced child labor, in the cotton fields. In June 2011, the ILO Conference Committee on the Application of Standards (CAS) was “obliged to echo the deep concerns…about the systemic and persistent recourse to forced child labour in cotton production, involving an estimated 1 million children.” It also expressed its serious concern at the “insufficient political will and the lack of transparency of the Government to address the issue of forced child labour in cotton harvesting.” Click here to learn about the status of Uzbekistan at the ILO.

On 26 January 2010, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, expressed its concern regarding the educational consequences of girls and boys working during the cotton harvest season, and requested the Government to guarantee that the cotton harvest season does not compromise the right of these children to education.  On 7 April 2010, the UN Human Rights Committee expressed its concern “about reports that children are still employed and subjected to harsh working conditions, in particular for cotton harvesting” and called on the Government to “ensure that its national legislation and international obligations regulating child labour are fully respected in practice”.

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What should governments do?

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. Governments should urge the Uzbek government to immediately abolish the use of forced labor of children and adults in the Uzbek cotton industry. Accordingly, Governments should also align economic, diplomatic and human rights policies.

Effective monitoring is an essential first step towards ending forced labor in the Uzbek cotton sector. Since 2009 the ILO has called on the Uzbek government to respond to continued reports from workers, employers, and civil society of systematic and persistent use of forced labor of children and adults in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields. Since 2010 the ILO tripartite supervisory body has called on the GOU to invite a high-level tripartite mission to conduct unfettered monitoring during the cotton harvest. In 2012, the ILO offered the Uzbek government an opportunity to take an initial step by inviting an ILO technical assistance team that would monitor during the harvest. The GOU steadfastly refuses to grant access to the ILO. Governments should communicate to the Uzbek government that diplomatic and economic relations depend on its accepting the ILO proposal, as a first step towards ending forced labor in the Uzbek cotton sector.

The EU should withdraw generalized system of preferences for Uzbekistan until the Uzbek government demonstrates that it meets GSP conditionality to protect fundamental human rights. Member-state governments should immediately urge the European Commission to open an investigation into cotton from Uzbekistan’s inclusion in the generalised system of preferences in light of the ongoing use of state-sponsored forced labor of adults and children in the cotton industry.

The US government should withdraw generalized system of preferences for Uzbekistan until the Uzbek government demonstrates that it meets GSP conditionality to protect fundamental human rights. The US Tariff Act specifically prohibits imports of goods made wholly or in part with forced labor or child labor. The US government should issue an immediate detention order on all pending and future imports of cotton goods manufactured by Daewoo International Corporation, Indorama Corporation, and other companies processing cotton in Uzbekistan. See the petition to the US government here. In its 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report, the US government accurately placed Uzbekistan in Tier 3, for governments that do not make significant efforts to eliminate forced labor.

The government of Germany should cease payments to the Uzbek government for use of the Termez base until Tashkent responds to state-sponsored human rights concerns. Back to top

What should companies do?

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. Implementing the Cotton Campaign pledge helps companies avoid complicity in human rights violations. Businesses that actively implement the pledge will also be applying direct pressure on the government of Uzbekistan to end the use of state-sponsored forced labor of children and adults in the cotton sector. Company inaction risks complicity with slavery as well as damage to the company brand by being linked to fundamental human rights violations in their supply chains.

COTTON TRADERS-

Global commodity traders, banks, investors and other companies involved in the global market of cotton and cotton products should utilize their leverage to generate political will in the government of Uzbekistan to end its practice of forced labor in the cotton sector. Traders, banks and investors send a strong signal to the GOU when they communicate that future business with Uzbek cotton depends on the GOU following the recommendations of the ILO tripartite supervisory body (CAS).

The commodity trading companies Cargill Cotton UK, ICT Cotton UK, Ecom, Paul Reinhart, Sicle, Cogecot Cotton Company, IKEA Trading, Devcot, Copaco all trade cotton, including cotton from Uzbekistan. The control of the cotton sector by the government of Uzbekistan means that business with Uzbek cotton directly finances the Uzbek government, which is responsible for forced labor and repression of its citizens’ human rights. The traders should end such direct financing of the GOU until forced labor in the cotton sector is ended.

APPAREL COMPANIES-

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.

As of July 2012, 74 companies have signed the Pledge, which states:

We, the undersigned companies are working to ensure that forced child labor does not find its way into our products. We are aware of reports documenting the systemic use of forced child labor in the harvest of cotton in Uzbekistan. We are collaborating with a multi-stakeholder coalition to raise awareness of this very serious concern, and press for its elimination.

As a signatory to this pledge, we are stating our firm opposition to the use of forced child labor in the harvest of Uzbek cotton. We commit to not knowingly source Uzbek cotton for the manufacturing of any of our products until the Government of Uzbekistan ends the practice of forced child labor in its cotton sector. Until the elimination of this practice is independently verified by the International Labour Organization, we will maintain this pledge.

2. The public commitment is the very first step. Companies must follow up and implement the Pledge:

  1. 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;
  2. Implement the company policy on Uzbekistan’s cotton by incorporating 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;
  3. 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 explicitly all companies of Daewoo International Corporation, Indorama Corporation, and those companies identified as operating in Uzbekistan listed here, and (b) implement the company policy on Uzbekistan’s cotton by incorporating 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;
  4. Remove all companies of Daewoo International Corporation, Indorama Corporation, and companies operating in Uzbekistan listed here from the company’s supplier database. Lock suppliers out of the company’s supplier database that have not signed the revised vendor agreement and fully complied with point 3;
  5. 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
  6. Release documentation of these steps publicly.

The Cotton Campaign recognizes the steps taken by concerned companies thus far, including public statements, direct communications to suppliers and support for letters to governmental actors. We look forward to working with companies to further develop and track indicators of pledge implementation, including the boycott of blacklisted companies such as Daewoo International, increased supply chain transparency, and engagement of other actors in the cotton industry. Back to top

Would a boycott of Uzbek cotton harm Uzbek farmers and other ordinary citizens?

No. The actual producers and pickers of cotton in Uzbekistan receive a negligible share of overall cotton export revenue; many result indebted. The adult rural population of Uzbekistan is in effect already boycotting Uzbek cotton by abandoning the countryside in the search of fair prices and sustainable incomes. While child labourers receive some income for picking cotton, it comes at an unacceptable price, the diminished quality of their education.

The question is important, because often boycotts can function like sledgehammers. In the case of cotton in Uzbekistan, the boycott functions more like a sculptor’s chisel, chipping away at the government’s incentives to maintain the status quo of forced labor of children and adults. The unique nature of state-sponsored forced labor of children and adults in Uzbekistan means that boycotting Uzbek cotton directly and solely impacts the government and not the farmers or those forced to work picking cotton.

There are no independent small cotton farmers in Uzbekistan. Land is owned by the government. “Farmers” are under contract with the government, which designates the percentage of the land to dedicate to cotton and quota of cotton to grow. If a farmer fails to produce his assigned quota of cotton production, the regional hokim (governor) can assign the land to another farmer.

Monopolization of the input market and cotton sales burdens farmers with significant debt. The government sets prices for farm inputs and outputs and is the sole buyer of cotton from farms and sole exporter of cotton to world markets. By one estimate, farmers’ costs exceed returns by 1/3. In 2011, researchers in one district found that 77 out of 83 farmers in a district of Jizzakh province were unable to pay off their loans only that year. In 2008, a survey indicated that 80% of farmers did not want to grow cotton unless they could negotiate the sale price.

A boycott of Uzbek cotton would force the Uzbek government to take real measures to reform its cotton industry, as a result of which Uzbek farmers would benefit a lot. They will receive income comparable to cotton farmers in neighbouring Kazakhstan, where the government doesn’t interfere as extensively in the sector so the cotton growing became profitable business. Back to top

Don’t you have to change the Uzbek people’s attitudes and beliefs about child labor in order for this problem to be solved?

No. When parents have been asked their views on this question under conditions of relative anonymity, by independent journalists and human rights activists, they universally state that they would rather keep children in school than have them work in the fields. Pupils unequivocally state they would prefer to be continuing their studies. See the report by the International Labor Rights Forum, ‘We Live Subject to their Orders’: A Three-Province Survey of Forced Child Labor in Uzbekistan’s 2008 Cotton Harvest (June 4, 2009) and the report by SOAS: What Has Changed (2010).

Uzbek citizens also recognize the drain on essential public services that results from sending teachers, medical doctors, nurses and other professionals to pick. As described by a young woman interviewed in 2012, “The results are clear. A couple weeks ago, my niece was ill, so I took her to the children’s hospital. They said that no doctors were available.”

A comment often heard suggests, “Compared to other forms of child exploitation in the world, such as sex trafficking, etc., this is really not all that bad. After all, I worked on the farm (in a shop, in my family’s business) when I was a child…”

First of all, we reject comparative misery contests that serve to underplay the suffering of any individual child or group of children relative to others.

Secondly, forced labor of children and adults in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields meets the ILO’s definition of forced labor and the worst forms of child labor, which Uzbekistan itself has committed to abolish. Work in the cotton fields causes debilitating injuries and even death. Uzbek men, women and children slave unprotected against these frequent tragedies, and when they occur, they and their families go uncompensated (and even encounter further persecution if they try to pursue any compensation).

Thirdly, the work comes at severe costs to society. Rural children miss as many as 3-4 months out of a school year. If they or their families refuse participation, they risk expulsion from school and will experience at the very least harassment from teachers and school officials. The scale of forced labor of government employees also disrupts the delivery of essential public services, including schools, hospitals, transportation and banking. Citizens have reported that schools have had to cancel lessons, merge classes to 60-pupils in a classroom, and use teachers to teach subjects that they are unprepared to teach, e.g. an English teacher delivering mathematics. Hospitals have turned away patients due to insufficient medical personnel, because they are obliged to send the staff to harvest cotton.

Finally, Uzbekistan’s children do not work for their own benefit or that of their families and communities, but are forced to pick cotton in order to benefit state and quasi-state structures. Under Uzbekistan’s repressive authoritarian system, it is completely untransparent how profits earned from the billion-dollar cotton export industry are utilized; many have surmised that those profits do not actually reach the state budget. They certainly fail to benefit impoverished rural communities. Back to top