Uzbekistan is the second largest exporter of cotton in the world, selling over 800,000 tonnes of cotton every year. Europe is its major buyer. But while the former Soviet Republic is at the forefront of global cotton production, its human rights and environmental record lags far behind the rest of the world. Forced child labour, human rights violations, excessive pesticide use, the draining of an ocean and severe poverty are all rife in cotton production in Uzbekistan.
© Thomas Grabka
© Thomas Grabka
Instead of using machines to harvest cotton, as is done in other major cotton exporting countries, Uzbekistan's government uses children. Every autumn state officials shut down schools, and send students, together with their teachers, to the cotton fields. Tens of thousands of children, some as young as seven, are forced to undertake weeks of arduous labour for little or no financial reward. Headmasters are issued with cotton quotas and made to ensure that students pick the required daily amount. Children who fail to pick their target of cotton are reportedly punished with detentions and told that their grades will suffer. Those who refuse to take part can face academic expulsion.

Uzbekistan's cotton farmers are made to suffer too. For despite producing a crop worth over US$1billion, those forced to grow cotton receive little of the revenues generated from its sale. Official figures suggest farmers receive around one third of the value of their cotton. In practice many get far less. Instead, Uzbekistan's cotton exports, which represent around 60% of the state's hard currency export earnings, are appropriated by the country's totalitarian dictatorship led by former Soviet official, President Islam Karimov.

Side by side with the human rights violations caused by cotton, is an environmental catastrophe of astonishing proportions. In order to irrigate its 1.47 million hectares under cotton, Uzbekistan's regime has all but eradicated the Aral Sea. Once the world's fourth largest body of water, the Aral is now reduced to just 15% of its former volume. Appalling mismanagement of this vital water resource has witnessed the disappearance of the sea's 24 species of native fish from its waters, the drying out of associated wetlands and the creation of tens of thousands of environmental refugees; the former dependents of the Aral's ecosystem.
Such gross exploitation of a nation and its environment has only been possible within a framework of extreme control. President Karimov has eliminated any form of democratic representation; prohibited a free media, subverted basic civil liberties and institutionalised the use of torture and intimidation within the police, National Security Service and prisons. Government attitude to public protest - peaceful or not - is brutal, as most recently witnessed by the response to demonstrations in the town of Andijan in May 2005. Demonstrators were met with indiscriminate shooting leading to an estimated 700 deaths and the subsequent arbitrary arrest of activists, human rights defenders and independent journalists.

Given such conditions, the Uzbek people have been left with little option but to abide by the commands of the Karimov administration. Tellingly, those Uzbeks who have felt able to speak out are clear in their condemnation of the cotton industry and united in their view that under the current regime it does little if anything to benefit the people, but much to support a corrupt and brutal government. Despite these well known abuses, Europe remains the major destination for Uzbekistan's cotton exports. Traders continue to associate with the regime, buying cotton in exchange for a substantial hard currency income, and high street fashion outlets sell clothes manufactured from Uzbek cotton.

The Environmental Justice Foundation is now calling for action to address the human rights abuses and environmental destruction associated with Uzbekistan's cotton production.

The European Union should:
  • Suspend cotton and cotton related imports derived from Uzbekistan until it can be demonstrated that Uzbekistan no longer uses child labour in cotton production;
  • Promote a "child labour free" label for cotton products;
National Governments should:
  • Work within the World Trade Organisation to introduce conditions on trade that would punish manufacturers and producers who use child labour at any stage of the supply chain;
  • Consider trade sanctions against Uzbekistan until the country can demonstrate that its cotton production is free of child labour;
International Clothing Retailers should:
  • Avoid procurement of Uzbek cotton until such time that child and forced child labour are eradicated from the production process;
  • Develop an effective product labelling system guaranteeing that neither child nor forced child labour is used at any stage of clothing manufacture;
Consumers should:
  • Demand that all products containing cotton are clearly labelled stating the country of origin of the cotton fibre;
  • Pick your cotton carefully - refuse to buy cotton products without certain knowledge that they have been produced without causing human rights abuses or environmental destruction;
  • Choose products which have been certified as fair trade.
For more information about Uzbekistan, cotton and the crushing of a nation please download our report "White Gold: The true cost of cotton or watch our award winning film


Uzbekistan on the map