Uzbekistan: cotton and the crushing of a nation

photo of a boy bending over to pick cotton in a field

Children in Uzbekistan often pick cotton with bare hands, with sometimes nothing more than slippers or sandals on their feet.
© Environmental Justice Foundation

Uzbekistan is the 6th largest producer of cotton and the 3rd largest exporter. Cotton production in Uzbekistan is one of the most exploitive enterprises in the world. The Uzbek Government forcibly conscripts hundreds of thousands of its citizens to work in its billion dollar cotton industry, retaining rigid control over cotton exports.

Every year, many schools are closed and children, some as young as seven years old, are sent to help pick the annual cotton harvest. Europe is one of the major destinations for Uzbekistan cotton - either directly buying the raw cotton or buying final products manufactured internationally.

As a result of international pressure, the Uzbek Government signed two International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions in an attempt to curtail criticism. However, the 2010 cotton harvest was once more marked by state-sponsored, child and adult forced labour.

Over the last few years, a number of major international retailers and well known high street clothing brands have pledged to avoid the use of Uzbek cotton in their supply chains. Such voluntary initiatives from the private sector have not been matched by action at policy level by European Governments.