However, the government-run industry is under a constant spotlight from human rights campaigners, who say hundreds of thousands of children are used each year to help bring in the cotton harvest. The children earn little if any pay and endure harsh and sometimes dangerous working conditions.
The problem was first highlighted in the UK by a BBC Newsnight report in 2008, which showed children being marshalled onto buses heading for the cotton fields. Schools in some regions were shut down until the cotton harvest finished in November/December. After the programme exposed the widespread use of child labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton production, Tesco and other Western retail chains banned the country’s cotton in any products being sold through their stores.
In response, the Uzbekistan government signed up to the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) convention (no.182) banning the worst forms of child labour. However, opposition parties and reports to the BBC’s local Uzbek service say this has not stopped the practice. In the past, one local told the BBC of the “immense pressure on families” for everyone to take part in the picking and said generally people were afraid to say ‘no’. Schools and colleges were also put under pressure to make sure the harvest came first.
As the picking season begins again this year, human rights campaigners are again raising awareness about the issue. They say that conditions in cotton-growing areas, such as in the central Jizzakh region, are extremely poor. It is rare to find heating, bathing or proper drinking facilities and they warn that children are vulnerable to health risks from contaminated water. Food served to the workers is also inadequate, often containing little or no protein.
Many international clothing brands continue to avoid Uzbek cotton. In New York, organisers recently cancelled a fashion show by the daughter of the Uzbek president after protests from labour rights activists. A political opposition group leader who took part in the protest told the BBC that the demonstration was mainly to “show how children are forcibly being taken to the cotton fields in Uzbekistan and to say it is time to stop this”. The Uzbek government denies children are being forced to work in the cotton fields, though officials have not acceded to a request from the ILO to send a fact-finding mission to the country this autumn. Pressure will continue as Western retailers maintain their boycott of the country’s cotton. However, Uzbekistan sells to markets such as China, Russia and Iran. This makes it hard for retailers to track where the cotton finally ends up and to ascertain if products made in other countries use any Uzbek cotton.