Why you could be wearing cotton picked by forced labor

Uzbek farmers working on cotton farms outside the capital, Tashkent.

Story highlights

  • Vast amounts of the world's cotton are produced in slavery-like conditions in Central Asia, writes Klara Skrivankova
  • In Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, people are being coerced by government officials to pick cotton, according to Skrivankova
  • Consumers have the right to know how the cotton that surrounds them is produced, she says

Klara Skrivankova is Europe Program and Advocacy Co-ordinator at Anti-Slavery International. The opinions expressed are her own.

(CNN)Cotton is ever-present in our lives. It is in the clothes we wear, the towels in our bathrooms, our bed linen, even bank notes we pay with are made with cotton.

What is little known however is that vast amounts of the world's cotton are produced in slavery-like conditions in Central Asia. And while many are concerned about the sweatshops of Bangladesh and India, few would have heard about the forced labor of their own citizens organized by the governments of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
More than a million children and adults in Uzbekistan and tens of thousands in Turkmenistan have toiled picking cotton in hot, hazardous and unsanitary conditions, coerced by government officials. Nicknamed "white gold," yields from cotton harvests bring riches into the pockets of small elites, while citizens remain impoverished.
    Klara Skrivankova
    A few weeks ago, the annual harvests in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan began, and again hundreds of thousands of people are expected be forced out into the fields.
    Forced labor production systems are deeply entrenched in the economies of both countries. The state owns most of the land, leases it to the farmers and imposes cotton production quota. Failure to meet the annual quota results in punishment, public humiliation or even loss of land.
    The procurement price of cotton is also set by the governments and is deliberately lower than the cost of production. The governments maintain monopolies and buy and sell all the cotton, making enormous profits not for the benefit of the citizens but for the profit of corrupt private elites.
    Pickers are recruited mainly from the ranks of civil servants. Every year teachers, doctors, nurses and local administration employees have to leave their regular jobs and go for few weeks to the fields. They often sleep in barracks without running water or basic sanitary equipment. They work long hours every day to fulfill the government imposed cotton quotas of cotton. If they refuse or fail to meet the quotas they face a loss of their jobs or at best regular harassment in their workplaces.
    All this has not discouraged multinational companies trading in Uzbek and Turkmen cotton and Western governments from promoting business and investment in both countries, or precluded large World Bank investments in Uzbekistan.
    We are unlikely to see any change in the coming weeks.

    'Change in tactics'

    Turkmenistan is one of the world's most oppressive regimes. It remains completely closed to any international scrutiny, there is no free media and human rights defenders face severe repression. The Turkmen government has never engaged with civil society or international bodies over concerns about forced labor. There are no signs of change for the 2015 cotton harvest.
    In comparison, Uzbekistan seems to be making progress. After years of no response, in April 2014 the Uzbek government committed to working with the International Labor Organization to eradicate forced labor.
    But this progress is only skin-deep. While the numbers of children in the picking cotton in the fields have dramatically reduced since 2012, the general system of forced labor remains intact. Last year the government forced unprecedented numbers of adults into the harvest.
    In other words, the Uzbek government's response to pressure has not been compliance with national and international laws, but merely a change in tactics -- replacing children with adults -- perhaps in the hope that adults in the fields will not evoke such sympathies in the Western public as pictures of small children picking cotton have done in the past.
    This cynicism on the part of the Uzbek government appears to be well founded. Less children in the fields and apparent openness to engagement has won the government some praise from the international community. Finally this year, the U.S. Department of State upgraded Uzbekistan in its Trafficking in Persons Report.
    The decision to upgrade the country received a lot of criticism as forced labor remains a fundamental feature of the Uzbek cotton industry. And, contrary to the Uzbek government's rhetoric, the situation on the ground suggests that we are unlikely to see any major shift this year.

    'It's down to us'

    The government has been investing a lot of effort in silencing anyone who attempts to document forced labor. According to the Cotton Campaign -- a coalition of human rights groups dedicated to ending forced labor in cotton production in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, of which Anti-Slavery International is a member -- twice in three months the police have assaulted Elena Urlaeva, one of the most prominent Uzbek human rights defenders, for attempts to document forced labor in weeding the cotton fields and for disseminating leaflets with information about Uzbek laws prohibiting forced labor.
    The experience of the past years showed that pressure to demand change in Uzbekistan can bring some results. But the value of the trade to so many international businesses means that their governments are unlikely to maintain the pressure once some token concessions have been made by the Uzbek government.
    So it is down to us, the consumers-voters, to demand of our governments not to be lenient with regimes that that continue to enslave their own citizens. Consumers around the world have the right to know how the cotton that surrounds them is produced and that is it has not been picked by slave labor of others.
    The Uzbek and Turkmen governments did not respond to requests to comment on this piece.