Cotton – it’s not a plant, it’s politics: The system of forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector- Evidence from the 2011 cotton harvest presents the depth and brutality of state-sponsored forced labor of children and adults in the cotton sector of the Central Asian country. This newly released report of the 2011 cotton harvest, by the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF), documents in vivid detail the coercive mobilization of over 2 million Uzbek school children, college and university students, government employees, private business employees, and farmers. Based on extensive field research, the UGF report concludes that forced labor in the Uzbek cotton sector will only end when the Karimov regime faces problems exporting cotton and sees lower cotton revenues.
“…The country is increasingly beginning to resemble a large Stalin-era labor camp,” is how Uzbeks interviewed by UGF described the extent of forced labor for the 2011 cotton harvest. As in previous years, children as young as age 11 were forced to meet daily cotton picking quotas of 40-60 kilograms. The 2011 harvest also included a significant increase in forced labor of adults, accompanied by more extreme punitive measures and disruptions to schools, hospitals, transportation and other essential services, reports UGF. Parents cannot protect their children despite the dangers to their children’s health, negligible compensation, and negative impact on their education. UGF’s countrywide assessment documents how participation is enforced by fear: students fear expulsion from lyceums, colleges and universities; government employees fear losing their job; low-income citizens fear losing social welfare benefits. The UGF report includes the release forms signed by students in 2011, in which they agreed to any punishment for refusing to participate in the cotton harvest.
“If the sale of cotton were in our hands, then farmers would be the richest people here. But the way things are now, cotton has more costs attached to it than profit,” states a farmer interviewed in the report. UGF’s research details the debt bondage that keeps farmers producing cotton, although many have already migrated to Russia in search of an income: The government owns the land and contractually obliges farmers to use the majority of land to produce cotton and deliver an annual quota, under threat of losing their land, explains UGF. Farmers face monopolized input and output markets; the low price paid to farmers for cotton is set by the government and falls far short of the high prices paid by the farmers to government-controlled input suppliers.
Command control of the cotton sector begins with the prime minister and is enforced through the prosecutor’s office, regional governments and even the participation of the National Security Services, the report explains. The very officials vested with the responsibility to implement the law are complicit in breaking it, UGF concludes. The report notes that the national law prohibits forced labor and child labor. Internationally, the government has also signed key United Nations conventions, under which they committed to protecting the rights of the child and all citizens’ freedom from forced labor. UGF’s research led them to conclude that Uzbek people understand the laws as merely a “smokescreen behind which there is a completely different reality, governed by unwritten laws, and above all, the ultimate law – ‘do as the chief orders, and do not argue.’”
Increasing corruption is highlighted by the report as another concerning trend in the 2011 harvest. Purchases of medical exemptions to avoid picking cotton, severe restrictions on exemptions for legitimate medical conditions, and hiring local day laborers are all practices in which income is extracted from the average citizen to ensure a nearly free source of labor for the cotton sector, explains UGF. Schools reported shortages of gas and electricity, while the government refused to transparently account for the estimated $1billion in income from its 2011 cotton exports. Due to the lack of transparency and accountability of public finances and of the use of major export revenues, the society is not aware at all how those export revenues are contributing to the wellbeing of the nation and its development.
Once again 2011, the government employed repressive tactics to conceal the coercion-based cotton harvest, UGF report. Throughout the harvest, law enforcement officers accompanied transportation of ‘picking brigades’ and ensured that pickers did not communicate with any visitors to the cotton fields. Citizens who attempted to observe and document cotton picking were detained, and their photographs taken away. School directors and teachers faced dismissal for any disclosure of the exploitation of the school children. UGF found examples made of a school principal dismissed and a teacher docked his pay for disclosure, and that enough similar cases ensured silence by the majority.
The report recommends to the cotton and apparel industry to implement the global boycott of Uzbek cotton, and to companies with operations in Uzbekistan that they conduct independent labor rights monitoring. The government of Uzbekistan, UGF concludes, must transform the cotton sector from the system governed by punitive measures and administrative coercion into a system driven by economic incentives. As a first step, the report recommends that the government invite the International Labour Organisation to send a tripartite, high level mission to monitor the cotton harvest and to avail itself to technical assistance from the ILO Secretariat, as recommended by the ILO tripartite supervisory body.
Click here to access the full report Cotton – it’s not a plant, it’s politics: The system of forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector- Evidence from the 2011 cotton harvest.
Action for Companies to Take to Address State-Sponsored Forced Labor in the Uzbek Cotton Sector
Everyone has a conscience; therefore, most people do not want to wear clothing or sleep in sheets made with cotton picked in slavery conditions. In the current accelerated stage of globalization, workers and consumers increasingly pressure companies, particularly those with consumer-facing brands, to assume more responsibility for the social quality of conditions behind the brand. Companies have learned that a brand tainted with poor conditions in the production process risks driving consumers away from the company. So why is resistance to action so strong when the ‘rubber hits the road,’ when a leak of Uzbek cotton into brands’ supply chains is identified and companies receive a clear call to plug it?
In Uzbekistan, the government forces over a million children and adults to pick cotton every year, enforces participation with threats of expulsion from school and unemployment, and severely represses Uzbek citizens who attempt to monitor the situation. After the Andijon massacre in 2005, the Uzbek government kicked out international human rights organizations and has steadfastly refused access to the International Labour Organisation, the tripartite (workers, employers and government representation) UN agency with a mandate to support decent working conditions worldwide. The estimated $1 billion annual income from cotton exports benefits solely the Uzbek government. Farmers do not own land, have access only to input markets monopolized by government officials, are contractually obligated to an annual quota of cotton and deliver it to the government at a price set by the government. The bonded labor system has driven many farmers to vote with their feet by emigrating to Russia or Kazakhstan; sadly, some have taken their own lives. It’s this dire situation that has coalesced the Cotton Campaign coalition of employers, workers, investor, and human rights organizations and brought the international representatives of workers and employers onto the same page in the case of Uzbek cotton.
So what can globally recognized brands and retailers do about it? Boycott Uzbek cotton until state-sponsored forced labor in the Uzbek cotton sector is ended. Boycotting Uzbek cotton would reduce the financial incentive for the government of Uzbekistan to maintain the forced labor system of cotton production. This may sound simple, particularly for companies pressured to address forced labor in their supply chains that have learned that such human rights violations are caused by a myriad of factors, including cyclical poverty, lack of worker organization and lack of law enforcement by governments pressured to offer foreign investors a cheaper operating environment than their neighbor. However, Uzbekistan is unique. Other countries producing cotton may have child labor and forced labor in the sector, but Uzbekistan has a government-sponsored forced labor system of cotton production. The Uzbek government is drawing income off the backs of Uzbek men, women and children. Not buying Uzbek cotton would deprive the Uzbek government of the concrete incentive to compel the free labor system of cotton production.
Many companies agree that using Uzbek cotton would tarnish their brand with a slave-made scar. Literally hundreds of global brands and retailers have established policies – 124 by publicly signing the Company Pledge -- to not knowingly use Uzbek cotton until forced child labor is ended in the Uzbek cotton sector. In case “knowingly” caught your attention; yes, no global brand can confidently inform its customers about the source of all of their cotton, much less ensure that labor conditions are decent at the raw-materials level of their supply chain. This current lack of “traceablity” means that it is impossible to surgically remove tainted product such as Uzbek cotton. In fact, cotton enters spinning facilities marked with its country-of-origin information, so some companies might someday decide that it’s worth knowing and making decisions based on such awareness. In the meantime, companies can ensure that there are not supplier companies known to be using Uzbek cotton in their supply chain by implementing the Daewoo Protocol.
Policies prohibiting forced labor, and, hence, currently banning Uzbek cotton, should mean blacklisting companies that are profiting off of the forced labor system in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector. The elephant in that room is Daewoo International, the Korean multinational that operates three facilities and accounts for over 20% of cotton processed in Uzbekistan and supplies inputs to supply chains worldwide on a staggering scale. Companies’ blacklisting Daewoo would not only slow the flow of cotton income to the Uzbek government, it would also pressure a major middleman in apparel supply chains to conduct human rights due diligence in its operations.
The effectiveness of a policy banning Uzbek cotton and companies that use it, such as Daewoo, depends significantly on the document carrying that policy. A letter from the CSR department to first-tier suppliers is unlikely to spark action. Proceeding to incorporate the policy into contracts with suppliers likely gives pause to breaching it. Including a provision that first-tier suppliers incorporate the same policy into their contracts with their suppliers drives the message down to whichever company in the supply chain that is purchasing yarn from the spinner, which has first-hand country-of-origin information. Short of employing the purchasing power of contractual agreements, the brand or retailer continues to be exposed to connections to forced labor in the cotton sector of Uzbekistan. This is why the Cotton Campaign is calling on brands and retailers to implement the Daewoo Protocol.
So why are companies not taking the preventive action of introducing a no-Uzbek cotton policy in contracts in the supply chain? Enter the complexities of global supply chains and the lawyers and the silo-ed departments for sourcing and social responsibility. Changing contracts involves the former. Verifying the documentation that companies known to use Uzbek cotton, e.g. Daewoo International, are not involved in the supply chain involves the latter. Social responsibility departments would have to add a step to the document review of the social audits of their suppliers, and sourcing departments would have to consider alternative suppliers whenever companies profiting from the Uzbek cotton sector are identified in the supply chain. This means checking documents for the name(s) of the companies of concern, a less complex process than other supply-chain auditing practices, e.g. verifying respect freedom from discrimination.
The goal and the theory of change are straightforward. Ending forced labor in Uzbekistan is a decision to be made by the government of Uzbekistan, who is also the sole party to benefit from Uzbek cotton income. Boycotting Uzbek cotton reduces the incentive for the Uzbek government to maintain their forced labor system and does not harm Uzbek farmers and other citizens. Apparel companies will not be able to trace their raw materials for some time, but they can avoid businesses with companies that are known to be using Uzbek cotton. Until they do so, apparel companies cannot confidently inform customers that no slave-made cotton from Uzbekistan lies underneath the brand.
So, as we approach the annual season of giving, ask your favorite brand or retailer to give the gift of confidence, confidence that they are proactively avoiding complicity in modern-day slavery. Click here to take action.
[Photo Credit: by Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty Uzbek Service, 2012]