Uzbekistan is one of the world’s largest cotton exporters, and the government of Uzbekistan uses one of the largest state-orchestrated systems of forced labor to produce it.
Every year the government of Uzbekistan forcibly mobilizes over a million citizens to grow and harvest cotton. The Uzbek government forces farmers to grow cotton and deliver production quotas under threats of penalty, including the loss of the lease to farm the land, criminal charges and fines. The government forces over a million citizens to pick cotton and deliver harvest quotas under threat of penalty, including expulsion from school, job loss, and loss of social security benefits.
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, Islam Karimov, and violates the fundamental rights of millions of Uzbek citizens each year.
Cotton picking is dangerous work. Each year, the forced-labor system of cotton production has claimed the lives of several Uzbek citizens, and many forced to pick cotton are exposed to unknown chemicals in the fields, unsanitary housing, and lack of safe drinking water.
Until recently, the government mobilized schoolchildren age 11-15 on a mass scale to pick cotton, leaving schools throughout much of the country effectively closed during the harvest season as pupils from the fifth grade and older and teachers from all grades worked in the fields. Due to sustained pressure from local and international organizations and foreign governments over many years, in 2012 the Uzbek government began to shift the demographics of its forced labor policies. Beginning with the 2012 harvest the government of Uzbekistan adopted a policy not to mobilize children younger than 16 on a mass scale. In 2013, the government extended this to first-year college students who are usually 16 years old, but continued the mass mobilization of second- and third-year students. In 2014 only third-year students were mobilized on a mass scale, including, in many cases, 17 year olds. Thousands of children were still sent to the fields in at least three regions in 2014, where local officials mobilized them in order to avoid stiff penalties for failing to meet production targets.
The government of Uzbekistan has increased the use of forced adult labor, apparently to compensate for fewer children. Massive mobilization of teachers, doctors, nurses and other adults to the cotton harvest has degraded education and health services. It has also led to widespread extortion of individuals and businesses, with officials demanding contributions individuals and businesses, including multinational enterprises.
Profits of the Uzbek cotton sector support only the Karimov government. 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. The system traps farmers in poverty, and the state profits from sales to global buyers. The profits disappear into a secret fund to which only the highest level officials have access, known as the Selkhozfond.
The cotton ends up in brand-name retail and apparel supply chains and therefore on consumers, even though citizens of Uzbekistan have called for an international boycott of cotton from Uzbekistan, and over 160 global brands have pledged to avoid while forced and child labor continues.
The Karimov administration harasses, detains, and exiles Uzbek citizens who call for recognition of human rights, violating their human rights and denying freedoms of speech and the press.