Cotton products finished in Bangladesh using raw materials sourced from Uzbekistan hardly represent a provenance that can be described as ethical. Whilst the journey from the fields of Central Asia to our retail outlets via the sweatshops of Dhaka undoubtedly provides employment for those with few viable alternatives, the price paid by the countless but faceless millions we take for granted who provide clothing for our throwaway society is unknown to all but a few in the West.

Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest comes at a significant cost. Widespread reports of forced labour undermine the wholesome image of a willing people working in the fields for the good of their country, as well as for a fair day’s pay. Indeed, anyone and everyone can be drafted in to pick the raw cotton, regardless of professional occupation or physical condition. If anyone coerced into what amounts to forced labour cannot or will not comply with their ‘voluntary’ conscription reprisals can be harsh and far reaching – unless an individual can buy themselves out of their predicament or present an alternative, ‘willing’ worker.

Cotton production is a lucrative money-spinner for Uzbekistan, although little of the spoils filter down to those whom the harvest would not be possible without. One classic way for the country to lower costs is to deploy child labour – which presumably involves a minimal or nonexistent financial outlay by gangmasters. In such a closed, autocratic and paranoid society accurate data pertaining to the scale of forced and child labour is though hard to come by, an issue recently highlighted by the International Labour Organisation(ILO). Whilst Uzbekistan’s endemic labour issues in the cotton fields are axiomatic, the difficulty in obtaining unbiased information without the threat of reprisals means even the most gloomy estimates of the level of forced and child workers operating within the country represent a mere tip of the iceberg.

It is too early to indicate whether the 2016 death of Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s strongman leader who oversaw the republic’s transition into an independent state will effectuate any substantive (positive) changes for the nation’s people. His successor Shavkat Mirziyoyev has so far offered few pointers of his intentions to stamp his individuality on the country, although figuratively stepping into Karimov’s shoes is a daunting prospect for anyone; an oblique comparison could be made to the futility of David Moyes succeeding Sir Alex Ferguson. The importance of cotton to Uzbekistan’s economy cannot though be underplayed; it is therefore difficult to see how a regime change will facilitate anything other than normal service being resumed. If the system is seen as one that isn’t broken, Uzbekistan will see no reason to fix it, despite the annual outcries regarding labour conditions. Only when the international community gets tough with Tashkent and apparel companies realise that being tainted with Uzbek cotton doesn’t win you any friends or customers, will the situation change on the ground. What is clear is this: Uzbekistan is unlikely to change until it is left with no choice but to do so.

Source material and further information:

Human Rights Watch – https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/02/16/uzbekistan-ilo-report-confirms-forced-labor