Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Sheets, Shirts, and Uzbekistan's Slave Labor Economy

In April 2014, the Uzbek government signed a framework agreement with the ILO for a three-year project aimed at improving labor rights to conform with international labor conventions. The Uzbek government recently claimed they have conducted seminars and workshops to educate government employees about these changes, which they say will improve the lives of ordinary citizens.

Evidence from the fields, however, shows these changes have yet to reach ordinary citizens. It appears the harvest is going forward this year as it has gone on in the past, treating farmers, doctors, nurses, teachers, students, and children as slave laborers in an industry that only benefits high-ranking government officials and a select elite. Recent press reports indicate that these ordinary citizens are not aware of these very big policy changes and are, thus, not aware of their newly granted rights.

The annual cotton harvest in Uzbekistan has begun.


Government set quotas are strictly enforced and closely monitored at the local level. District khokims (similar to governors) commit to quota levels and use police and courts to enforce the quotas. Many farmers don’t actually own their land, they rent it from the government. These farmers can be kicked off their land for missing quotas too frequently or failure to repay debts incurred to ensure adequate harvest and support their families. Khokims and their enforcers use threats of eviction to intimidate any farmers who dare object to the annual cotton production.

If farmers don’t meet quotas, they can be sued for damages at about 25% of the purchasing price of the shortage These shortages are never officially recorded in the cotton registry, so those who oversee the cotton industry are never aware of actual production. Cotton packers manipulate the books then make money on the side from fines and selling excess cotton. Packers will only purchase 10% excess over quota from any individual farmer, thus farmers sell remaining excess to other farmers who are short of their quota. There are rumors of physical abuse perpetrated by khokims against farmers who don’t meet quotas, but nothing reliably documented.

Farmer Rights: Uzbek law states that farmers can use any unpurchased cotton for personal use. However, most farmers are unaware of this right and many have been accused by local officials of stealing from the government if they keep any cotton for personal use. As a result, anything that cannot be sold or bartered is left in the fields. Uzbek law also states that farmers must pay all workers, yet farmers typically only pay hired workers. All public sector employees and students work without pay, even though they are entitled to pay.

The Future: Farmers expect cotton-picking machines will finally be made available starting in 2016. Up until 2003, farmers had adequate farm equipment but the machines were not maintained properly and, at this point, there are virtually no cotton-picking machines in Uzbekistan. One farmer estimates that hand picking cotton costs five times more than using the machines. Farmers are not using fertilizers, meaning their harvests are a third to half of potential volume. Fertilizers are too expensive, given the prices farmers receive currently. If farmers could use cotton-picking machines, however, they would save enough money to use fertilizer and increase production. Farmers don’t make enough money to live on from the cotton harvest (in fact, many report losing money).

More about cotton production from the farmer's viewpoint here.

Forced Labor

Adults and children work in fields to plant, weed, and harvest cotton under threat of punishment. Worldwide publicity surrounding child labor in the cotton fields forced the Uzbek government to declare an end to using child laborers; however, the practice has not completely ended. Recent reports show children are still taken out of their schools for harvesting, about 30 days. Even if children are not forced to work in the fields, their teachers often are forced to comply. Without teachers, there is no school.

Teachers are not the only profession working in the fields. Doctors, nurses, and businessmen are also required to work in cotton fields or they will be forced to resign.  They receive no pay and no reimbursement of expenses incurred. They are expected to participate in planting, weeding, and harvesting all day for weeks multiple times a year (Uzbek).  Many end up sleeping on the floor of nearby government buildings.

If they do not participate or if they do not meet quota, they will be dismissed from their jobs Some teachers have been told they must continue teaching and must also pay out of their own earnings (Uzbek) for other workers to weed or pick the cotton – these fees are said to be equivalent to their annual salaries. Some businessmen have been told to work in the fields or pay someone else to work for them. Many end up bribing farmers to obtain an attendance letter (Uzbek).

Above articles in Uzbek are translated to English here.

High School and University students are also expected to participate.  As a condition for enrollment in school, parents are required to sign statements saying they allow their children to work in cotton fields.  If students fail to meet their obligation, they can be expelled from school.

These students are typically relocated to a village, often sleeping in houses of local residents or government buildings. If boarding with a family, they are expected to reimburse their hosts for water, electricity, gas, and food.  The government provides lunch but students must cover all other expenses out of their own pockets. Students who are financially able typically pay off the organizers in order to be excused from the trip. These fees are equivalent to those paid by teachers.

The Cotton Market

All harvested cotton is sold directly to the cotton association Uzkhlopkoprom, which operates all of Uzbekistan’s cotton gins, and of which the Uzbek government owns 51%. Uzkhlopkoprom historically pays farmers about one-tenth of the international market price, although they publicly state they pay one-third of the international market price.

Uzkhlopkoprom collects, transports, and processes the cotton then sells the cotton to three state trading organizations (Uzmarkazimpeks, Uzinterimpex, and Uzprommashimpeks) who sell the cotton to the export market. The names of individuals who own and run these trading organizations has been kept secret from the public.

Cotton sales account for about 60% of Uzbekistan’s total export earnings.  Uzbekistan is the fifth largest cotton producer and third largest cotton exporter in the world, producing about 1 million metric tons and exporting about 850,000 metric tons annually.  Cotton exported from Uzbekistan is commonly commingled with cotton from other countries prior to processing in to fabrics and finished products. Due to the lack of appropriate cotton tracking systems, it is difficult to ascertain where these products end up but it is quite likely it is present in products in every American home, including mine and yours.

Beginning in 2007, a coalition of unions, retailers, socially responsible investor groups, and human rights organizations joined together in an effort to place political and economic pressure on the Uzbek government. Retailers associated with this coalition informed their suppliers that they were to take all possible measures to ensure Uzbek cotton is removed from their supply chain.  Nevertheless, Uzbekistan continues to be one of the world's top cotton exporters.

Next Steps

If cotton-picking machines are, as promised, made available and properly maintained, farmers will be able to afford to use fertilizers and increase their cotton yields. It will be easier for each farmer to meet their quota and they would have more land available for other crops to sell and increase their income. Without the need for manual laborers, doctors and nurses would be able to continuously provide healthcare services and teachers and their students could stay in school.

Uzbekistan has virtually no downstream cotton industry in country, although the Prime Minister recently announced plans to build a new textile plant. Critics fear it will be swept up within the quasi-state owned and operated umbrella of corruption and labor exploitation as currently exists.

Rights groups continue to monitor the cotton harvest and attempt to educate farmers and laborers of their rights.  Pressure from retailers has proved insufficient. Change must now come from within Uzbekistan, both from the top-down and the bottom-up. As consumers, we should be watching closely to ensure that change happens.

Based on publicly-available records, the Uzbek government currently makes the equivalent of $1 billion every year from cotton exports.  The farmers and laborers see none of these proceeds, either directly or indirectly through infrastructure improvements.

More about this year's cotton harvest can be found here.

For more about the history of forced labor in Uzbekistan cotton fields, see:
Human Rights Watch
Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights
Cotton Campaign

All photos within are screenshots taken from videos provided on the Cotton Campaign website.

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