The grave problem of forced labor in Uzbekistan in the cotton industry is in the news again as the United States placed the country at the very bottom of its annual State Department Trafficking in Persons Report this June.
Uzbekistan has been categorized as “Tier 3,” which means that the government does not “comply with minimum standards to combat human trafficking and fails to take adequate steps to address the problem.” A county placed in this category will potentially face sanctions.
Uzbekistan is a country of about 30 million and has been ruled by President Islam Karimov since 1989. Over 80 percent of the country is Muslim and only 36 percent live in urban areas. The poverty levels are not terribly high at 16 percent and the literacy rate is almost at 100 percent. However, these statistics do not explain the whole story and the serious problem of forced labor.
Just last year an organization called the Cotton Campaign finally got the government to significantly reduce forced labor of children. The campaign arranged for many garment companies to boycott Uzbek cotton. This was a victory for the children but not for their parents. Instead of forcing children to pick cotton for about a month each year, the Uzbek government has moved the labor onto adults. About a million Uzbek citizens are forced to pick cotton each year.
Doctors, teachers and government employees are among some of the laborers who are transported to the farms sometime during the harvest season between September and November. These laborers are not beaten or tortured into picking cotton, however, if they refuse they face arrest. The Uzbek government calls these laborers “volunteers” in an attempt to ignore the reality of the situation.
Rights organizations as well as the International Labor Organization have a difficult time assessing or regulating the situation. The Uzbek government heavily restricts their work in the country and cracks down on its own activists.
The problem also extends further than just the forced labor. The entire industry is controlled by the government, making it possible to take advantage of the farmers as well. The farmers have to meet quotas and sell the cotton back to the government well below market prices. The government then exports the cotton to foreign companies at huge profits.
Those fighting for the rights of these laborers are happy with the action taken by the U.S. government. It “sends a message of solidarity to the well over a million Uzbeks forced to pick the country’s cotton crop.” Putting Uzbekistan in Tier 3 will help pave the way for possible sanctions. If the money flow for the Uzbek government were to stop or at least decrease, they might notice and change their policies on forced labor.
The success of Cotton Campaign last year to remove children as the primary cotton pickers is hope for the future. If boycotting can end child labor, perhaps sanctions could end the problem of forced labor entirely.
— Eleni Marino