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Cotton picking in Uzbekistan: ‘volunteer’ or forced labor?

Cotton is a staple fiber that grows in a boll. After being harvested, cotton is spun into yarn or thread. It is the world’s most widely used textile, with over 29 million tons of cotton produced every year. However, the fabric that makes up a majority of consumers’ favorite clothing and blankets could be hiding a dark secret somewhere in their supply chain.

Many people do not concern themselves with where the materials that make up their clothes come from or how the clothing is produced. It isn’t surprising to hear that materials used are the result of forced labor or unfair working conditions.

The cotton harvest in Uzbekistan yields over 1 million tons of cotton fiber annually. It is one of the largest cotton exports in the world and over one million people to pick the raw cotton from the fields. But they aren’t employed by cotton farmers or companies. In order to meet cotton production quotas, the Uzbek government orders schools to be closed down and they mobilize teachers, students and public servants to manually harvest cotton in the fields until quotas are met.

Andrew Kramer, an international correspondent for The New York Times, took the opportunity to shed light on the injustice.

Kramer learned child labor and forced cotton picking is unique to the Uzbekistan culture. This state-controlled system is under the control of current presidents ever since the end of Soviet rule. Students are threatened with expulsion if they don’t participate, teachers with job loss.

“To hear the government tell it, all these teachers, doctors, bureaucrats, employees of small businesses, engineers and architects ‘volunteer’ for a few weeks of farm labor each year.”

Profits from cotton sales only go to the government. Cotton farmers are required to meet state-made quotas and to sell their produce at obscenely low prices, putting them in debt to the government.

“When people think about solutions to the problem, they think there’s nothing they can do without any influential power, “ Kramer said. “Anyone has the power to make a difference. The one thing anyone can do it to spread awareness.”

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