For many, countries like Uzbekistan may seem like an enigma. A former Soviet republic, the country was forced abruptly into declaring independence in 1991 and has struggled to make a significant impact internationally. One of the reasons for this has been Uzbekistan’s stagnant economy, relying on a strict state controlled mandate of gold, uranium, and perhaps most importantly, cotton.
In fact, the arid landlocked nation is so reliant on the fibre that around two million people pick cotton during the harvest months. The catch however, is that these workers are rarely volunteers.
Enacting the law of ‘hashar’, the Uzbek government periodically removes citizens from their homes and forces them to pick cotton under the guise of a ‘national duty’. For many years these unwilling labourers have included children and students, removed from their education until governmental targets have been met. Working conditions have been described as ‘appalling’ by pressure group ‘Anti-Slavery International’, with long work hours, poor shelter, and little or no pay.
Such squalid conditions have naturally opened the door for corruption. Workers are frequently harassed and students threatened with academic failure if they refuse to work. These issues have often turned violent, with one student being stabbed to death over a financial dispute in 2013. Events like these are all too common, as local officials attempt to manipulate an already corrupt system for their own end.
International government response to this practice has left a lot to be desired. Uzbekistan remains the second largest cotton exporter in the world despite the efforts of charities to raise awareness. Britain’s many lucrative university links and the country’s strategic position next to Afghanistan have allowed the practice to be overlooked by government.
Despite this, NGOs such as ‘Cotton Campaign’ have managed some significant breakthroughs. Nowhere has this been clearer than in the boycott of Uzbek cotton by over 100 brands such as Adidas and H&M. This refusal has clearly resonated with the Uzbek authorities, with new legislation banning child labour in the industry.