Cotton is one of the most popular fabrics used to make products. It’s in our clothing, our linens, towels, and even in our currency. But do you know where the cotton used to make your favorite pair of jeans or sheets comes from?
The top cotton producing countries in the world include China, India, the United States of America, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. The industry is a complex one and unfortunately is rife with human rights violations. Abuses such as slave labor are happening today, and without you knowing it your cotton purchases could be contributing to this real-life issue. Here’s how these unethical labor practices continue to happen in two of the largest cotton producing countries in the world.
The issues with cotton in Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan is the 6th largest cotton producer in the world, and the Uzbek government uses a systematic process of forced labor to produce nearly US$1 billion worth of cotton per year. This crop accounts for approximately 17.6% of the country’s GDP and is commonly referred to as “white gold”.
The government forcibly mobilizes citizens to leave their jobs and work in cotton fields to keep up with the demands of picking the white gold. Global and national human rights groups, including the Human Rights Watch, report that working conditions are harsh. Uzbek citizens work long days in scorching temperatures with limited access to water, food, and clean facilities. To top it off – Uzbek citizens who are forced to work in the fields usually aren’t paid. So why don’t Uzbek citizens just refuse to work under these conditions during harvest season?
A report in 2017 prepared by the Cotton Campaign revealed that government officials and business owners force employees against their will to pick cotton. These people are teachers, doctors, nurses, and employees of government agencies and private businesses. They’re threatened by employers and government officials with penalties, such as forced resignation from their jobs, if they do not contribute to the harvesting work.
“Cotton is mandatory for everyone. The government gave the orders [to pick] and you will not go against those orders…. If I refuse, they will fire me…. We would lose the bread we eat.”
−Uzbek schoolteacher, October 2015, Turtkul, Karakalpakstan (Source: Human Rights Watch Report)
The Human Rights Watch also investigated and reported the same findings in regards to this systematic forced labor in Uzbekistan. People and families who live in poverty and receive social aid are even more susceptible. The government threatens to take away their social and welfare benefits if they refuse to work.
The issues with cotton in Turkmenistan
Uzbekistan’s neighbor, Turkmenistan, also uses systematic forced labor practices to grow and pick cotton. Turkmen citizens face similar tactics of coercion through penalties, including docked pay and termination of employment. According to the Alternative Turkmenistan News, the Turkmen government even classified anyone who refused to contribute to the cotton harvest as insubordinate and having “contempt for the homeland.”
Public and private citizens, including doctors, nurses, and teachers, are forced to pick cotton. They are given the option to pay a fine rather than pick the cotton, but the amount increases every year. In 2015, a teacher reported that the fine was 1170 manat, or $334 USD.
Private transportation companies are also forced into working during harvesting season in Turkmenistan. Unsafe buses and trucks are used to transport people to the fields on a daily basis. If drivers refuse to participate, they are punished with fines and even threatened by the government with blacklisting from the transportation industry.
Despite international and national efforts to protect Uzbek and Turkmen citizens from forced labor, their governments continue to oppress thousands of workers to harvest cotton every year.
Political and Industrial Efforts to Fight Forced Labor Practices
International governments and organizations, and many global companies are putting pressure on the government of both countries to end its forced labor practices. Here are a few ways that organizations are winning the fight for human rights in the cotton industry:
- In June 2017, the U.S. State Department downgraded the governments of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to the lowest possible ranking in the annual Trafficking in Person Report.
- Until 2012, the Uzbek government forced children as young as 11-years-old to leave school and pick cotton. However, thanks to continued pressure, the Uzbek government shifted its forced labor policies. As of 2014, only third-year students, who are as young as 17, were mobilized to go to the fields. Efforts by the Cotton Campaign and the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights continue to prevent all children from being forced into working on cotton fields. Nonetheless, as children are increasingly excluded from forced labor, more adults are being compelled to work under governmental orders.
- Hundreds of companies have taken the Responsible Sourcing Network Pledge in collaboration with Cotton Campaign and vow to not source or use Uzbek and Turkmen cotton. See the full list of 276 companies here.
Cotton from these countries still ends up in global supply chains despite these pledges and policy changes. With paper-based tracking and verification, companies have been unable to identify if their cotton products are mixed with cotton covered in forced labor fingerprints — until now.
The Truth Is In Our Technology
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The Consumer’s Role: How Can You Make A Difference In The Cotton Industry?
Here are a few ways you can make a difference in industry and the lives of Uzbek and Turkmen citizens:
- Share this information to educate your friends and family on the effects of their purchases and how it could be funding slave labor.
- Support organizations like the Humans Rights Watch, The Cotton Campaign, and Anti-Slavery in their efforts to end forced labor in the cotton industry.
- Refuse to purchase cotton products from companies that cannot verify that they do not source their cotton from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
- If you want to continue using these products, contact the company and ask them to take the Responsible Sourcing Network Pledge.
The labor issues in the cotton industry are complex, but your daily choices can help reduce your contribution to global slave labor. Together, we can make the cotton industry more ethical and sustainable. Learn more about our commitment to sustainably and ethically sourced cotton products here.