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Are Uzbekistan’s Labor Conditions Worse than Bangladesh’s?

While Bangladesh has become an emblem of labor exploitation, Uzbekistan has largely managed to elude the mainstream spotlight, despite a woeful record of human rights violations.

The International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), a U.N. based organization, has filed a formal complaint with U.S. Customs, alleging that its cotton production uses forced child labor and demanding that Uzbek cotton be banned.

According to the ILRF, as much as one-third of the Uzbekistan’s population is forced to pick cotton each fall,  including as many as two million Uzbek children, compelled to leave school for the cotton fields. The US, in particular, has weathered pointed criticism for buying cotton from Uzbekistan. Since 2008, the U.S. has bought over 620 tons of Uzbek-sourced cotton products; in February 2013 alone, an estimated 23 tons of cotton were exported from Uzbekistan to the U.S.

At least in principle, the US is legally prohibited from purchasing any such cotton, if the allegations prove true. Under the Tariff  Act of 1930, any imports to the U.S. which contain materials made with forced labor are banned; groups like the ILRF, and like minded activists, explain they merely want the US to act in accordance with legislation they have already passed.

Brian Campbell, director of policy and legal programs at the ILRF, said, “We expect U.S. Customs will conduct a thorough investigation into how cotton from Uzbekistan is escaping detection at U.S. ports of entry.”

And many are worried that a new deluge of international aid will only fortify a criminally oppressive government that operates like a pre-modern feudal system. The World Bank and Unicef have co-authored an aid proposal to bolster the ramshackle education system in Uzbekistan that provides nearly $50 million in funds. However, the prospectus makes no mention at all of the exploitation of young students for the purposes of cotton picking nor does it include mechanisms ensuring the money is properly allocated by the government.

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Similarly, the Asian Development Bank has proposed a $220 million aid package to contribute to the modernization of Uzbekistan’s irrigation system. The argument many activists make is that all of these aid programs ultimately end up perpetuating what amounts to slave labor.

The farming system in Uzbekistan is a vestige of the Soviet era; back then, agriculture was entirely a state run enterprise, making farmers essentially government employees. In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, there was a mad rush to the privatization of land that was overtake by oligarchs in conjunction with the government. While nominally private, the government dictates every aspect of cotton growing, including how to price it and who to sell it to. If farmers don’t comply, or fins themselves unable to make bureaucratically determined quotas of production, they can booted from their own land.

And this cotton often finds its way into the garments sold by mainstream retailers and brands. H&M, the Swedish fast fashion supplier, has been repeatedly accused of using cotton sourced in Uzbekistan. While the company has always vehemently denied those claims, some if its suppliers have been linked to cotton grown in Uzbekistan. A spokesperson for H&M said, “”Our company policy prohibits the use of Uzbek cotton in our products which is also communicated to all our suppliers. In order to support a more sustainable cotton industry we joined Better Cotton Initiative and Textile Exchange in 2004.We are working continuously to improve traceability of the cotton used for our products and we aim for all cotton to come from more sustainable, fully traceable sources by 2020 at the latest. For the last two years in a row we have been the biggest buyer of organic cotton according to Textile Exchange.”

Making matters worse, more evidence has surfaced that the forced labor in Uzbekistan often specifically targets children. A new 900 page report, “Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor,” singled out Uzbekistan for its use of child labor during the summer cotton harvest. In some cases entire schools of children were involuntarily conscripted to work in cotton fields. The report also implicated Kazakhstan as well as Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Peru in South America and Kenya, Madagascar, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Ivory Coast in Africa.

Cotton exports comprise a major component of Uzbekistan’s economy, amounting to over $1 billion dollars and 850,000 tons per year. The nation is the world’s sixth largest cotton producer and third largest exporter.