WASHINGTON — The world’s fifth largest cotton producer, Uzbekistan, is currently in the midst of a two-month-long harvest and, according to reports, a longstanding system of forced labor is again being used to gather the lucrative crop.
For years, children as young as seven years old were forced to work in the cotton fields during the annual sowing, weeding and harvest cycles, in order to fulfill government-set harvest quotas enforced on farmers and local administrators. Last year, coinciding with an observation mission from the United Nations, the number of children in the fields was drastically reduced. That progress now appears to have extended to this fall.
Yet rights groups are warning that teenagers – between 15 and 18 years of age – are still being taken out of school and made to work in the fields. Further, there has apparently been no change in the broader system of forced labor.
“The state-sanctioned system of forcing people to grow and pick cotton has not been changed,” Umida Niyazova, an Uzbek journalist and activist now with the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, told MintPress News. “There has just been a shifting of the burden from small kids to older kids and adults.”
Others say that the government’s apparent policy changes have actually expanded the number of Uzbeks currently being forced to labor in the cotton fields, albeit for shorter periods of time.
“We’re very happy that the under-15-years-olds are no longer in the fields. But as a result, more than three to four million people – rather than one million younger children – are now being forced to pick cotton, including students and civil workers,” Patricia Jurewicz, the director of the Responsible Sourcing Network, a group that promotes multi-stakeholder responses to supply chain concerns, told MintPress.
“And if they can’t do so, they’re forced to pay large sums of money – over a month’s salary. So the whole orchestration of forced labor is still happening; it has just shifted in how it’s being managed inside the country.”
The U.S. government backed up this contention last week. In an annual report, the Department of Labor found that, over the course of 2013, Uzbekistan made “no advancement” on eliminating the worst forms of child labor.
“Notwithstanding initiatives to reduce child labor, Uzbekistan has received this assessment based on the Government’s continued complicity in the use of forced child labor,” the report states. “The national Government maintained policies in the cotton sector, which mandate harvest quotas and cause local administrators to organize and impose forced labor on children and adults.”
The Uzbek government has been under mounting international pressure around these concerns for years, taking sustained criticism from governments, civil society, multilateral agencies and the private sector.
Yet at an annual cotton fair held this week in the country’s capital, Tashkent, the government again signed export contracts worth more $1 billion, according to media reports quoting the country’s trade minister. Watchdog groups say this money will go into a secret fund, the details of which are unknown even to the Uzbek Parliament, and little will be used for the public good.
A bit more is known about where Uzbekistan’s raw and processed cotton goes, at least at first. This week’s contracts, for instance, have reportedly been signed primarily with Asian buyers, including in China, South Korea, Bangladesh and India. Several of these countries are, of course, among the world’s most important textiles producers, with a steady stream of clothing headed to markets around the world.
This includes the United States, where the government has yet to figure out how to keep textiles made from cotton harvested by slave laborers out of domestic stores. While current U.S. law bars the import of raw commodities produced with slave labor, for the most part those prohibitions do not extend to processed goods. (The U.S. government has indeed launched an investigation into allegations that one company, the Indonesian Indorama Corp., attempted to import Uzbek cotton into the country. Similar complaints have been made against a South Korean company, Daewoo.)
Still, federal officials have recently made new administrative moves that rights groups say are significant. In June, the U.S. State Department downgraded Uzbekistan to its lowest possible ranking, known as Tier 3, in its annual report on human trafficking. That formal characterization brought with it the threat of U.S. sanctions, though President Barack Obama has not yet moved in this direction.
Further, last week’s report from the Department of Labor has received significant applause from rights groups for having formally acknowledged the systemic nature of Uzbekistan’s forced labor problem. Previously, much of the U.S. government’s stance on the Uzbek cotton sector had revolved only around the use of child labor.
“We’re very happy the Department of Labor has called this situation what it is: a forced labor system, where everything in that system is a result of the government-imposed quota,” Brian Campbell, the director of policy and legal programs at the International Labor Rights Forum, a legal advocacy group here, told MintPress. “That has really changed the dialogue so that it’s not just about children.”
While official recognition of the scope of the Uzbek problem is now growing, these concerns were long overshadowed by the country’s strategic location bordering Afghanistan.
“For years everyone ignored us, and you got the idea that the international community was failing to address this issue because of the terrorism situation in Afghanistan,” Campbell said. “Now, with the help of the textile industry and the critical work of monitors on the ground, we’re seeing the last vestige of willful blindness on the part of the international community.”
Still, Campbell says his office’s main concerns remain focused on foreign-invested enterprises in the cotton sector – an issue that he says hasn’t yet been addressed.
Corporations such as Daewoo and Indorama, for instance, both continue to engage in contentious investing in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector. Concerns have also been raised about the Uzbek operations of General Motors, the U.S. carmaker.
In addition, advocacy groups have expressed frustration around Uzbekistan financing from multilateral agencies, including the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank. Indeed, the World Bank was reprimanded last year by internal auditors for engaging in investments that could facilitate the country’s system of forced labor.
“There hasn’t been recognition of the inherent problem that lies at the heart of investing in a closed economy like this, where their cotton money is all tied up in a secret fund,” Campbell said.
“The Uzbek government still hasn’t fully admitted that its quota system is a forced labor system. Until they accept this, any further engagement with the government may enable this system further.”
Cleaning supply chains
While ongoing support from a handful of cotton purchasers is clearly facilitating the robust continuance of Uzbekistan’s forced labor system, recent years have also seen a notable consolidation of agreement among major global brands not to use Uzbek cotton.
Last week, Tesco, the world’s second largest retailer, joined more than 160 companies that have already formally signed on to a public agreement known as the Cotton Pledge, overseen by the Responsible Sourcing Network. Others on the list include Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp., Macy’s Inc., Kohl’s Department Stores and many more.
“The corporate consciousness on this issue has definitely strengthened, but there are still many parts of the public that have never heard of concerns around cotton,” the Responsible Sourcing Network’s Jurewicz said. “While there’s been a lot of work done on, for instance, labor problems in factories, cotton remains the second largest sector for forced and child labor, behind gold-mining.”
Using the stated interest by multinational companies in eliminating Uzbek cotton from their supply chains, Jurewicz is now turning her attention to the middlemen processors that generally stand between raw producers and manufacturers or retailers. While commodity traders are typically difficult to access on this issue, an opportunity could be found in the mills and “yarn-spinners” that turn raw cotton into workable product.
In a study released earlier this year, the Responsible Sourcing Network found that some 80 percent of major brands and retailers do not engage in any kind of auditing of these processors.
“The yarn-spinners know where their bales of cotton originate. They can dictate what cotton they want to buy and what they don’t, and the traders will deliver what they want,” Jurewicz said.
“The brands have given positive feedback on this, because they want assurance that the raw material in their product does not contain any forced labor or child labor. But currently there’s no broad mechanism to give that guarantee.”
Jurewicz is currently implementing a feasibility study to look at how a comprehensive verification and auditing system could go forward. She says initial results should be ready by this coming spring.