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Activists Protest Uzbekistan’s Forced Cotton Labor

Protests against forced cotton labor in Uzbekistan intensified on Tuesday during a planned global day of action, according to labor and human rights coalition Cotton Campaign.

Coalition members delivered a petition signed by 2,700 people from around the world to the Uzbek Ministry of Education in Tashkent, as well as to Uzbek embassies and consulates in Berlin, London, Paris and Washington, D.C. Advocacy group Anti-Slavery International staged a small protest outside the Uzbek embassy in London.

The petition condemns Uzbekistan’s reliance on forced labor, and demands the state increase the price paid for raw cotton so farmers can offer workers higher wages. The belief is that higher wages would provide greater incentive to pick more cotton, and therefore reduce the amount of forced labor each harvest season.

Uzbekistan is the fifth largest exporter of cotton in the world. In order to meet the high demand, the country’s government, led by President Islam Karimov, requires farmers to grow cotton, and local government to force adults and children as young as 10 into cotton fields to meet quotas. Schools, government offices and personal businesses shut down, adults are threatened with loss of employment, and children with expulsion from school if they do not comply.

Cotton Campaign reports that profits from the Uzbek cotton sector support only the government, as farmers are forced to sell the cotton to state-owned enterprises at extremely low prices. The state profits from high-priced sales to global buyers, with the cotton often ending up in brand name retail.

Uzbekistan’s harvest season officially started on Sept. 8, and it typically runs to November. Matt Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign coordinator, said school and universities have been particular hard hit this year. Doctors and nurses are also being forced to abandoned patients and work in the fields.

Last year, over one million people were forced into work in Uzbekistan. Eleven died, including a 6-year-old boy, The Star reported. Fischer-Daly said no deaths have been reported this year, however, 29 students on their way to cotton fields were injured when their vehicle crashed.