February 21st, 2013
10:59 AM ET

Cotton exporters using child labor

Conscientious consumers are credited with driving change in forced child labor practices inside one of the world's most repressive regimes: Uzbekistan.

But while progress has been made, the fight is far from over.

"Uzbekistan has one of the most atrocious human rights records of any nation in the world," said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia research for Human Rights Watch.  "It's longstanding President (Islam Karimov) has been in power for 23 years and he crushes dissent."

Hundreds of thousands of students in Uzbekistan are pulled from their classrooms every fall and ordered into the fields to pick cotton for little or no pay.

A mother was recorded on video saying that if she didn’t send her child to pick cotton, she faced a fine equivalent to two weeks pay.  Rights groups say students are also threatened with losing their seat in the classroom.

Government and private sector employees are also forced to join the harvest and meet quotas knowing that if they don't, they could lose their jobs.

Forced labor in Uzbekistan's cotton industry is a legacy of the Soviet era. It survives because Uzbekistan's government officials profit directly from the cotton harvest.

Farmers are told to plant the cotton and the government buys it up at artificially low prices. It is then sold on the global market.

"Child labor had been widely used under the Soviet regime," Uzbek rights defender Elena Urlaeva explained to CNN. "It has been around in the 20 years of independence as well. It is free after all.

"Children and their parents have been taught that cotton is the white gold and national pride of the country. They study that in school from the first grade. Those who disagree have been presented as enemies of the State."

Urlaeva and others in Uzbekistan's Human Rights Alliance have been harassed, arrested and jailed. Human Rights Watch had its offices shut  down. The International Labor Organization was refused permission to monitor the cotton harvest.

Students and workers forced to pick cotton say they were ordered not to take cell phones or cameras into the fields that could be used to document working conditions.

Today, more than 130 apparel manufacturers have pledged not to knowingly include Uzbek cotton in their clothing or other goods.

The pledge is the result of years of efforts by groups like the Responsible Sourcing Network that are working to end forced labor.

Most companies are ready to sign up because they concede consumers are sympathetic to the cause. It's just good business.

"Today is an era of transparency," said Patricia Jurewicz, Director of the Responsible Sourcing Network. She says consumers choose brands which are committed to not having forced labor associated with their products.

That pressure is making a difference.

In 2012, Uzbekistan announced it was ending the use of primary school age student labor.

Activists like Elena Urlaeva found a sharp reduction in the very young but found last year's harvest still saw high school and university students forced into the fields.

Monitoring whether the government is abiding by its own pledge isn't easy.

Urlaeva said: "When human rights activists tried to approach the fields where children were working they noticed that they were guarded by the militia, prosecutor's office and by special services (referring to KGB-like structures there)."

Urlaeva said she was detained in the Tashkent region after documenting 11 to 18 year olds being used in the cotton harvest.

Uzbekistan's Embassy in Washington declined an interview, but gave CNN a written statement.

In part, it said: "The statements about arrests, beatings and detentions of those who are involved in cotton harvest do not correspond to the reality.

"Uzbek cotton has a superior quality and these statements may be the result of the efforts of our competitors to create unhealthy environment and dishonor Uzbek producers."

The statement says Uzbek farmers are paid in full for their cotton, but rights defenders insist it's a price set by the government to ensure a healthy profit for itself.

Uzbek officials concede the cotton harvest is a Soviet-era relic, and insist the government is trying to diversify and change. Activists aren't so sure.

"Without an open civil society, without international agencies able to get in and without reporters able to get in," says HRW's Swerdlow, "it's going to be extremely difficult to verify what the government is doing, as it says, to combat the problem of forced child labor and forced labor of adults."

Despite the hurdles, activists are encouraged that the number of global brands which have pledged not to "knowingly" use Uzbek cotton is up from 60 a year ago to more than 130.

Activists concede the fight against forced labor is far from over.

There is a major effort to get companies that signed the pledge to audit their supply chains.

Activists have to keep up the pressure on both countries and companies.

But the best hope for a million Uzbek students may be those informed consumers who sustain their point by not buying clothes sourced with slave labor - no matter the cost.

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Topics: Business • In The News

soundoff (38 Responses)
  1. Katie

    Where can I obtain a list of brands that are avoiding cotton grown here? Also, are any of those brands also improving working conditions in the production of the clothes they make? Ethically sourced cotton is important, but the clothing industry's responsibility runs much deeper than that.

    February 21, 2013 at 1:13 pm | Reply
    • Katie Back

      The Responsible Sourcing Network has created the Cotton Pledge. Here is a a description of what the companies have pledged to do regarding Uzbekistan cotton and who is involved.

      http://www.sourcingnetwork.org/the-cotton-pledge

      February 22, 2013 at 12:23 pm | Reply
    • Jimmy Kimmel

      It's easy. Just flip over anything you see and if it says "made in China", put it back. China is a huge user of child labor, and political prisoners to make cheap things for you. Don't feel the guilt of those people wasting away in slave prisons, their only crime would be having an opinion. Don't let those clothes touch your back. The voices of the dead will haunt you forever.

      February 23, 2013 at 2:42 pm | Reply
  2. rory

    Last chance to save the world, don't buy or have anything to do with US

    February 21, 2013 at 5:08 pm | Reply
  3. AlexanderE81

    The United States and Europe had no problem with Uzbek cotton when they were using the Karshi airbase during their operations in Afghanistan and renditioning terrorism suspects to Uzbekistan. If you want to look for the worst human rights abusers in the world the U.S. and Europe should look in their own backyards and the labor practices of their corporations in places like China, Vietnam and Bangladesh

    Steve Swerdlow can stay out of Uzbekistan. Human Rights Watch has long been used as an agent for revolution by Western powers especially in the former Soviet World. It is funded by the billionaire George Soros who bankrolled the CIA's color revolutions in Kyrgyzstan, Georgia and the Ukraine. Uzbekistan does not need George Soros or his American NGO's interfering in the internal matters of Uzbekistan. I've had friends and relatives working in those fields. Americans give a percentage of their hard earned wages to the government, Uzbeks work in the cotton fields. It is Uzbekistan's business, it's not the business of the West.

    February 21, 2013 at 5:23 pm | Reply
  4. David

    Alexander E81 it's also not your business leaving stupid cooments against CNN and West. West ( USA ) doin a great job for world economy. CNN is showing what is happing in Uzbekistan. Since Uzbekistan became independent State, only one dictatore Islam Karimov had been corrupting State economy and also his evil national security service ( SNB ) had been killing and torturing civil society ( including religious people those who are just Muslim and pray five times a day and also business people, journalists, human rights activists , singers as well. ) Thanks a lot for CNN corespondence

    February 22, 2013 at 10:51 am | Reply
    • AlexanderE81

      David the cotton harvest has been going on since Soviet times. Ok so the regime may not be the best in Tashkent, but what's the alternative. If you can think of an alternative that doesn't lead to civil war I'm all ears. As of recently when the West starts criticizing a regime they don't like, revolutions have been occurring and in Syria and Libya that meant violence a bloodshed something I would never wish upon my Uzbek brothers and sisters. So you tell me what's a viable alternative that doesn't lead to violence?

      February 22, 2013 at 4:40 pm | Reply
      • Alison

        Sadly sometimes civil war is the only alternative. The only way to force a change is with the people themselves..you can not give freedom to someone..they need to take it for themselves.

        February 23, 2013 at 5:00 am |
      • David

        Uzbek people need freedom of speech, democracy like the democracy in US, and I had never seen any other alternative in Uzbekistan. Do you know why West is criticizing a regime in Uzbekistan , Syria, Libya and other countries ? They want to have a freedom life and democracy in Uzbekistan and other countries as well. Because imagine Uzbek people had been living under communistic regime ( Soviet Union and current communist Islam Karimov). You tell me do Uzbek people have freedom for religious practicing? or Do Uzbek people have freedom of speech? Of course not . Uzbek people ever had any freedoms, they used live under evil regime of Soviet Union and since 1991 they still have been living under evil dictatorship regime. Can you imagine how can Presidents kill their own people? Only dictators like Islam Karimov can kill their own people.

        February 23, 2013 at 11:14 pm |
  5. David

    Well dictator Islam Karimov is really old and he is preparing his monkey daughter Gulnora Karimova for becoming a new President. Currently evil national security service ( SNB) killing anyone who is popular in Uzbekistan. Go to the Hell monkey Islam Karimov and Gulnora Karimova.

    February 22, 2013 at 11:00 am | Reply
    • AlexanderE81

      David I am guessing you are from Uzbekistan. I am not but I have relatives who are and they worked in those cotton fields when they were students and sometimes even after if they had a government job. They send soldiers, they send police they send everyone when harvest time comes. Of course there's injustice, but I do not like the West sticking their noses in Uzbek business because you saw what they did to Iraq, what they did to Libya and what they are now supporting in Syria. I never want such violence to happen in Uzbekistan. The West is not the friend of Uzbeks, the West looks after its own interests and if there's a news story about Uzbekistan in the Western media its serving a propaganda purpose for the West. I'm all for change if its peaceful and Uzbek people are able to maintain their culture and traditions and most importantly the average Uzbek's life is improved by the change. However I do not see the West (the U.S., U.K.) or the Wahhabists who have their eyes on Central Asia ushering in anything but exploitation and violence.

      February 22, 2013 at 4:51 pm | Reply
      • David

        Well, Alexander E81 I am not from Uzbekistan and I am just politician in West and I am agree to Honest Uzbek's opinion you don't have to defend this brutal regime. I can give you thousands of example about brutal regime in Uzbekistan. For example; 1 ) Uzbek people have to get exit visa ( avir) for leaving Uzbekistan, 2) If Uzbek people who want to stay in Tashkent more than 3 days they have to get permission ( type of city visa) from regional police department. 3 ) Even doctors, professors, engineers , teachers, University students, college students, school students ( elementary, middle and high school students ) have to go forv cotton harvest. And if you need other examples I can send you.

        February 23, 2013 at 10:49 pm |
  6. empresstrudy

    Let's blame everyone except the people doing it.

    February 22, 2013 at 11:58 am | Reply
  7. jamirahmed

    modern slavery

    February 23, 2013 at 11:19 am | Reply
  8. Honest Uzbek

    AlexanderE81, you don't have to defend this brutal regime. Trust me, they won't throw you any bone to lick. You would have a different opinion if you were the one who had to pick cotton leaving your job and family for two-three months. Uzbeks have no problem working as long as they are paid accordingly and respected by the their own government. This is a regime that uses its citizens as slaves and tries justify this awful practice as "national service"... And just because this has been going on for a long time, it does not mean it is good. It is not about America or any other international actor, it is ultimately about the people of Uzbekistan and their lives.

    February 23, 2013 at 5:36 pm | Reply
  9. Alain Rioux

    What bothers me about campaigns to end this kind of slavery (and it's clear that SOMETHING has to be done!) is that, as more companies will stop buying that "slave cotton" the population is going to suffer for still a long time until things become let's say normal in the sense we see here in Western contries. The diplomats and government officials of Uzbekistan are hardly going to starve from our actions as they are now, until there is a TRUE world government that can supersede the dictators (obvious and hidden) of this world. I keep hoping, but PLEASE, hit at the right places! It's like police pretending to combat drug traficking by arresting the individual consumers. Gotta hit the drug lords! Same fror the cotton kings!

    February 23, 2013 at 6:47 pm | Reply
  10. David

    Do you people know who is the worth terrorists and dictators in the world? They are Islam Karimov and his monkey daughter Gulnora Karimova.

    February 23, 2013 at 11:41 pm | Reply
  11. AlexanderE81

    Alison you are dead wrong. Where are you from England...America. Would you support Civil War in America if you knew it was a good possibility that your own relatives and friends may very well be killed in such a war. Unless you have been to Uzbekistan and spent significant time there with average Uzbeks don't pretend like civil war is some kind of viable alternative to regime change. In Syria Christians, Sunnis, Shias, Alawites, Druze and Kurds have lived with each other in relative peace but do to US and European foreign policy goals they used Turks, Qataris and Saudis to arm the Sunni opposition and now there is civil war in Syria with up to 70,000+ dead. If you think that's a good solution the next time Civil War breaks out somewhere in the world you should go and see what a civil war looks like then get back to me.

    February 23, 2013 at 11:55 pm | Reply
  12. AlexanderE81

    David everything you've mentioned above I know about. I've spent considerable time in Uzbekistan and I have relatives and friends in the country. All of my relatives and friends have worked in those cotton fields. The regime is not popular, but what is the alternative? You never gave me any viable alternatives and as much as the people might not like their country's leadership they know that the likelihood of violence after he is gone is very very high. There will be a power struggle and everyone including the Wahhabists will be vying for power. It will be very very ugly. The only way there can be a stable transition to a different form of government would have to come from the top down. Forgive me for my skepticism or outright hostility to Western foreign policy but after watching how the Americans and others have set the Middle East on fire its hard for me to get optimistic about the prospects of the West bringing positive change anywhere in Central Asia.

    February 24, 2013 at 12:01 am | Reply
  13. Uzbek man

    (@) David

    Dear Western politician David,
    I am Uzbek man and I think I've right to tell my opinion here. When I was a schoolboy and student I used to go to cotton field to harvest a cotton. From my experience I can tell you that it wasn't so bad as CNN and any media describe now. That was even fun to go to the cotton field and imagine what, cotton harvest time wasn't affect my intelligence, me and many other my friends graduated top Western, US universities with an excellent grades .

    I do not fully support to take children to the cotton field, but time comes and we will solve it by ourselves. It's not Western or US politician's business. About registration in Tashkent, ovir or any issues related to visa procedure you should first mention US or Western rules which is more difficult than in our country.

    Afghanistan was one of the beautiful and rich country before US propagandized religion leaders against their Government in 70's. Who gave all those ideas and weapons to Taliban? Who created Taliban by the way? I still remember that US came to Afghanistan to help nation, but what's the result now? NATO is leaving all the mess in the region with unsolved problems that probably will affect all Central Asia. How about Kyrzakhstan (as Mr. John Kerry said)? He even doesn't know the name of the country, but he said that US is supporting to built a democracy in the country. So I can give you mln. examples against US and Western politicians.

    At the end I would like to tell that peacefully evolution brings prosperity to our country, not a bloody revolution or democracy. People like Ms. Elena Urlaeva will run away if smth bad happens in our country but those people who are picking up the cottons will remain and they are we, Uzbeks or any other nations who are peacefully living in our countries.

    February 24, 2013 at 9:26 am | Reply
  14. jim

    wonder what happen to the cotton i picked in the 50,s wasn,t very good so i picked grapes as summer job to make more money to buy school supplies and the one pair of shoes to last a year

    February 24, 2013 at 6:34 pm | Reply
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  16. Catherine Fitzpatrick

    The comments here indicate what an uphill struggle it is to get the world's left and the Soviet-infected and Kremlin-manipulated world intelligentsia off their hatred of America and capitalism long enough to see the real bad actors here: the regime in Uzbekistan, Russia, the biggest buyer of its cotton, and other regional actors like India and Pakistan and Bangladesh who buy the cotton.

    That's why direct pressure on these regimes is needed; propping up the weak Obama administration to do more on this particular front as they dodge it; and working with the ILO, UN, OSCE, etc. are all needed.

    http://3dblogger.typepad.com/different_stans/2013/03/scant-output-on-human-rights-in-uzbekistan-after-foreign-ministers-washington-trip.html

    The rest up here is so much apologia for a brutal, bloody regime that harms people gravely and the leftists of the world shouldn't be covering for that.

    March 19, 2013 at 12:09 am | Reply
  17. Mama Mia

    Reblogged this on Peace Is....... and commented:
    Our closets and homes are FULL of textiles that originated from Uzbekistan. No fashion statement or fashion bargain is worth wearing the blood of slaves.

    March 31, 2013 at 12:37 am | Reply
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  21. sadashivan

    We have to be practical as education alone cannot solve child labour crisis. Child labor is as a result of low or no family income. Generation of employment to rural women and men Would rather help reducing this crisis. 'Child labour' children consider themselves as financial contributors to protect parents & family. My site seeks to move beyond just saying child labor is wrong, to understand the social conditions that lead to children being forced to work. Also has helpline links for child trafficking and abuse

    January 29, 2014 at 1:00 pm | Reply

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