Cazzie Reyes is a Researcher for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center's Anti-Trafficking Programs. She graduated from Bradley University with a Bachelor's degree in International Studies and a minor in Women's Studies.
Uzbekistan is currently the world’s sixth-largest cotton producer and fifth-largest cotton exporter. Supplies of Uzbek cotton are used to produce garments around the world, and reports of abuses in these cotton fields have sparked a protest against slavery-tainted goods and the origins of Uzbekistan’s state-imposed forced labor.
In the first half the 1800s, the Russian Empire imported most of its cotton fiber from the United States. During the American Civil War in the 1860s, however, cotton exports from the southern states decreased, and the Russian Empire had to find alternative suppliers. The Russians began to build railroads connecting their main commercial cities to Central Asia. Eventually, small independent territories – the Kokand and Khiva khanates and the Bukhara Emirate – located in what is modern-day Uzbekistan became the main suppliers of cotton for the Russian textile industry. The forced cotton cultivation in this era expanded and took over fertile lands meant for cereal crops.
After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union emerged in 1922 and absorbed most of Central Asia. The Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic (UzSSR) became one of the republics of the Soviet Union in 1924. During the Soviet era, Stalin imposed a centrally planned economy, introduced rapid industrialization and mandated collectivization. As a result, the government controlled agricultural production, pricing, distribution, processing and trade. The Soviet Union pursued a policy of self-sufficiency, and cotton became the “white gold” of Central Asia. In exchange for water, food and energy, the UzSSR had to be the Soviet Union’s main cotton supplier. The Soviet government’s investments more than doubled the UzSSR’s cotton fields and went towards the purchase of machinery, fertilizers, pesticides and improved cotton varieties as well as the development of better irrigation systems. Note that these investments were strictly limited to increasing cotton fiber production rather than creating jobs and opportunities throughout the cotton value chain (e.g., textile production) in the UzSSR. By the 1970s, the UzSSR was producing more than two-thirds of all the Soviet cotton supply.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the former UzSSR became an independent country now called Uzbekistan. Without Soviet investment and with a difficult transition from socialism to a market-based economy, Uzbekistan attempted reforms to stabilize its economy. Still, cotton remained Uzbekistan’s most valued export product, and the Uzbek government maintained control over production targets and prices.
Eventually, the government tried to develop the Uzbek industrial sector by using revenues from the cotton and gold sectors to improve its import-substituting industries (e.g., oil refinery). However, despite the fact that the country managed to diversify its export sector, the government refused to change its policies over the cotton industry.
Consistent with state-controlled practices in the Soviet era, the Uzbek government determines the dates and rates of plowing, seeding, irrigation, fertilizer application and harvesting. It owns all of the farmland in Uzbekistan, delegates production targets and areas throughout the country, mandates participation during the harvest season and keeps market prices well below the world market price.
The harvest season begins in September, and every year, about one million people – regardless of their socioeconomic status – are forced to pick cotton. Teachers, doctors, factory workers and others must either work the fields or pay to not participate. Otherwise, they risk being punished or fired from their regular jobs. Government and law enforcement officials work together to facilitate this flow of state-imposed forced labor and violently represses activism around the issue.
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The World Bank lends money to developing countries like Uzbekistan. However, the country's cotton industry relies on forced labor.