Last week in Uzbekistan, hundreds of thousands of people, including children, were forced from their jobs and schools and into the cotton fields, where they’ll spend the next few weeks picking the crop under hot, unsanitary, and often hazardous conditions for little to no pay. It’s an issue that doesn’t gain the same amount of attention or notoriety as sweatshop exploitation in Bangladesh and Cambodia, but it’s something that happens, nevertheless. Cotton is in our clothes, our linens, and even our currency, so it only stands to reason that Uzbek cotton is, too, according to Anti-Slavery International, a London-based human-rights organization that created a two-minute animated video explaining what amounts to government-sponsored forced labor.
“If you think that forced labour in Uzbekistan doesn’t affect you, think again. It is likely that whilst reading this you is wearing a piece of garment made with Uzbek cotton” Klara Skrivankova, Anti-Slavery International’s Europe programme and advocacy coordinator, said in a statement. “Slavery in Uzbekistan gets less international attention because human-rights abuses in other parts of the world happen to be more spectacular and happen in countries with more established links to the Western world, such as India or Thailand.”
But the situation in Uzbekistan is equally heinous, with brutal consequences for those who refuse to comply, she said. People who fail to meet their quotas risk losing their regular jobs. And twice in three months, local authorities have detained and assaulted an activist named Elena Urlaeva for attempting to document forced labor in the cotton fields.
There have also been cases people dying in fields from heat exhaustion, such as the case of a 55-year-old woman who was forced to weed a cotton field in 50-degree Celsius weather (122 degrees in Fahrenheit) this past July.
And while many businesses have pledged to boycott Uzbek cotton, the fiber still ends up in supply chains all over the world, whether knowingly or not, Skrivankova said. Many governments, including the one in Britain, even actively promote trade with Uzbekistan.
“Uzbek slavery affects all of us. Most of its cotton is exported to Bangladesh and China, which in turn are major producers of clothing for the rest of the world,” she said. “We are all likely to be wearing Uzbek cotton and people have the right to know how it has been produced. That’s why we made this video”.