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Leon Kaye headshot

Free TVs Can’t Mask Human Rights Violations in Uzbekistan Cotton Fields

By Leon Kaye

Gather five tons of cotton and score a free television. That's the proposition a regional government gave families in eastern Uzbekistan last week. And the local press is buzzing. Families who can double their cotton haul could receive a free washing machine or refrigerator, while 15 tons can help them skirt the country’s long waiting list for a new car.

As the BBC reported this week, the car perk alone could be enough incentive for some people, as waits for a new Chevrolet can extend for as long as six months.

But what the BBC report barely touched upon is that Uzbekistan's annual cotton harvest brings out some of the worst human rights abuses on earth. An oppressive regime, until recently led by a family who reportedly hoarded billions of dollars while many citizens struggled, cashes in due to backbreaking work in a nation the World Bank says has a per capita income of just over $2,100.

This year's cotton harvest season in Uzbekistan comes at a time when the country’s leadership is mourning the passing of its president, Islam Karimov, who died on Sept. 2. Karimov led the country since it broke off from the Soviet Union in 1991 and became its first, and only, president until his death.

But Karimov was able to stay in power because of the stranglehold he had on his country and its economy, the third largest export of which is cotton. NGOs, including Anti-Slavery International, say this industry nets over a billion dollars annually for the nation’s coffers while forcing citizens to work long days in oppressive conditions.

Most of that money was reportedly funneled to the Karimov family over the years, including the late president’s older daughter, Gulnara. Gulnara Karimova was often seen as the softer face of her father’s regime, and her roles as a public figure alternated between pop icon, cultural ambassador and fashion designer. But according to Wikileaks and the Guardian, she was also a borderline mafia head who “bullied” her way into just about every profitable business in Uzbekistan.

And inside the famously opaque country home to 30 million people, Gularna was often described as its most hated person for using her father’s power to enrich herself while abuses in the cotton sector never relented. When human rights activists learned that she was presenting her clothing designs at New York Fashion Week in 2011, outrage over the Uzbek cotton industry’s ties to child labor, forced labor and even torture convinced the show’s organizers to cancel the rest of her events. Only after the outcry over a 2012 scandal, which involved a $300 million payment from a Swedish telecomms company to one of her businesses in order to enter the Uzbek market, did Gulnara fall out of favor with her father. Once viewed as her father’s successor, she was not seen at his funeral earlier this month.

But Gulnara’s fall from grace was a picnic compared to the suffering heaped on Uzbeks every autumn. EurasiaNet, one of the best sources of news on Central Asia, has long documented how citizens are rounded up to pick the country’s most lucrative cash crop.

In August, local and national officials begin to compile lists of citizens who they deem ready to work in the summer heat, which can soar up to 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit). No one is exempt, including teachers and medical professionals, but the more fortunate citizens can pay someone to take their place. Corruption is rampant, farmers are threatened with jail should they not meet their quotas (if they do not commit suicide), and as many as 1 in 5 Uzbek adults find their lives disrupted with forced labor on the country’s cotton fields.

Due to boycotts and a long-running awareness campaign, child labor in Uzbekistan is on the decline, but abuses are still found across the country. Most Western companies and governments prohibit the imports of Uzbek cotton. But the country avoids that ban by exporting to markets such as Bangladesh, China and Korea. Hence any apparel company that does not have rigorous audit controls in place can see its supply chain, and reputation, blow up at any time.

The likelihood of conditions improving in Uzbekistan at any point soon are remote. The country has become an economic basket case as years of mismanagement weakened an already fragile economy. Low energy prices have curbed Uzbekistan’s gas exports as the country’s guest workers in neighboring Russia and Kazakhstan are wiring less money home due to decreased job opportunities. Jobs are scarce, which means unrest could occur as citizens face further competition from former expats returning home. And Uzbekistan’s struggle with drought and pests means conditions on the nation’s cotton plantations could only become worse as the government becomes more desperate to gather more cash.

Fashion brands, including Gap Inc., H&M and Zara, have pledged to remove Uzbek cotton from their supply chains, though as win the case of many apparel companies, it took relentless pressure from NGOs in order to stop such sourcing practices. Consumers, in turn, need to be educated about cotton's social impacts, including what is going on with Central Asia’s cotton industry. And retailers need to educate everyone, from procurement officers to retail clerks on the shop floor, about one of the world’s most hideous travesties that still refuses to go away.

Image credit: David Stanley/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye