By the Blouin News Business staff

Uzbekistan cotton exports bloom despite forced labor

by in Asia-Pacific.

Flower and cotton wool in Uzbekistan. Getty Images

Flower and cotton wool in Uzbekistan. Getty Images

Uzbekistan’s cotton industry is booming, despite record low demand from China and a boycott campaign against forced labor in the cotton fields. The country, the world’s fifth-largest cotton exporter, signed contracts for the export of 700,000 tons of cotton fiber and finished textiles worth over $800 million during the 11th International Cotton & Textile Fair held in Tashkent last Thursday and Friday. (Over 1,000 representatives of 470 companies from 42 countries took part in the fair.) The state-owned cotton sector is very lucrative, but it relies on an estimated 1 million people per year being drafted to pick cotton, while the government cracks down on any activists seeking to document the harvest.

Right now the regime is forcibly mobilizing students, teachers, doctors, and nurses to pick cotton under threats of suspension from school and losing their jobs, reported the Huffington Post. And last year, Swedish telecommunications giant Teliasonera (which recently announced it will be pulling out of Uzbekistan) acknowledged that all companies were required to contribute to the cotton harvest as a prerequisite for doing business in the country.

In October alone, the NGO Cotton Campaign has documented six deaths associated with this year’s harvest. But this business model, however cruel, seems to be working, as Uzbekistan’s cotton export volumes have increased year after year. In 1994, the domestic textile industry exported products worth $8 million; by the end of 2014 this figure exceeded $1 billion. It is all the more notable that this year saw an increase in contracts even as Chinese cotton imports reached an all-time low last month. With a slowing economy and huge domestic stocks of cotton (11 million tons) from its world-leading production, China imported just 50,900 tons of cotton in September, a decline of 59% year-on-year. But Uzbekistan is being given a boost from a whitefly pest infestation harming the world’s second largest cotton producer, India; the cotton output of the states of Punjab and Haryana are estimated to take a hit of 40% this harvest.

Regardless of the human rights controversy, Uzbekistan’s P.M. Shavkat Mirziyoyev said in his address to the Cotton Fair that one of the country’s policy priorities is to further develop its modern textile industry. He noted that currently over 35% of cotton fiber produced in Uzbekistan is processed within the country, a proportion which is set to rise over the coming years.

From 2010 to 2014, Uzbekistan’s textile industry received $785 million in foreign investments, and saw 147 new textile enterprises being commissioned, with investor participation from Germany, Switzerland, Japan, South Korea, the U.S., Turkey, and other countries. The export potential of just these enterprises amounted to $670 million. And Uzbekistan wants further international involvement in its light industry development program, which began this year. “In the next five years we plan to commission more than 100 joint ventures in the light industry with the most advanced technology and equipment,” Mirziyoyev added.

Over 175 retailers and consumer brands have pledged to avoid using Uzbek cotton until forced labor is ended. But many retailers’ supply lines may not be aware that their cotton originates in Uzbekistan. Most of that cotton is exported to Bangladesh and China, which in turn are major clothing producers for the rest of the world.

But to their credit, the boycotts and naming-and-shaming campaigns against the government and firms complicit in Uzbekistan’s forced-labor cotton industry have proven partially effective. Namely, child labor used to be rampant in cotton picking, but the practice has largely ended due to outside pressure. Don’t celebrate yet, though, because now more adults are conscripted into cotton picking to make up for the labor shortage. Clearly, much hard work remains to be done by both laborers and activists.