Uzbekistan: $1 billion cotton harvest draws Western ire

Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev announced that roughly $1 billion worth of textile products have been shipped this year and that sales are expected to increase, making Uzbekistan the world’s fifth largest producer of cotton. Some 3.3 million tons of cotton were produced last year, but Western powers like the United States have been adamant in their criticism of the government run industry, citing its use of forced child labor throughout the population to complete the harvest. While the Uzbek government has repeatedly denied claims of coercion, in the past it did indicate it would bring labor standards into compliance with conventions of the International Labor Organization (ILO). 2013 was the first time schools remained open during harvest periods so that most students would not be obliged to participate.

However, a number of US-based groups cite claims to the contrary. Among them is the US Department of State which asserts that “no advancement has been made in Uzbekistan” on forced labor, including those of children – stated in a report made jointly between the US Department of Labor and State called “Findings not eh Worst Forms of Child Labor.” Other groups, such as Human Rights Watch and the Cotton Campaign, have attempted to convince international retailers and clothing manufacturers to desist from sourcing Uzbek cotton. The most recent signatory of the list is British retailer Tesco. Most of the undersigned companies, however, are not the main customers of Uzbek cotton as most shipments head farther East, to Korea and China. Uzbekistan’s announcement of revenues occurred shortly after the US denouncement, suggesting a defensive posture on the issue.

In addition to the international concern, an enormous cotton harvest in the United States and Australia have created an huge surplus in the market, dropping prices to their lowest levels in five years as of last July. As the harvest is ending, prices are beginning to creep back up again, but surplus supply is still keeping revenues low. Global demand is also extremely low due to a concerted campaign by the Chinese government to stockpile its supply over two and a half years, causing a record amount of stored cotton worldwide.

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