We boycott cotton from Uzbekistan’s forced labor

Our t-shirts are made of cotton ethically produced in the United States. The cotton used by our manufacturers is grown in the United States, including even for our standard t-shirts and imported products. US cotton farmers are required to adhere to strict US labor laws and regulations. These regulations are most likely some of the most stringent in the cotton growing industry globally. They provide workers with ethical workplaces and because cotton is regulated as a food crop, workplace health and safety conditions mirror those of the vast majority of the foods we find on our tables.

Click here to learn more about our US cotton.


Slavery-like practices are used in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields

Every year since 1989, the Government of Uzbekistan, one of the world’s largest exporters of cotton, forces over 1 million of Uzbek citizens to leave their regular jobs and go to the fields to pick cotton for weeks in arduous and hazardous conditions. Many people have died almost every year in fields from extreme heat and accidents, including children who are also forced to work. According to several human rights organizations, slavery-like practices are used in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields.

Human rights organizations, such as the IHFHuman Rights WatchAmnesty International and others, define Uzbekistan as “an authoritarian state with limited civil rights” and express profound concern about “wide-scale violation of virtually all basic human rights”.

According to the human rights violations reports, the most widespread violations are torture, arbitrary arrests, and various restrictions of freedoms: of religion, of speech and press, of free association and assembly. It has also been reported that forced sterilization of rural Uzbek women has been practiced by the government. The reports maintain that the violations are most often committed against independent journalists, members of religious organizations, human rights activists and political activists, including members of the banned opposition parties.

Human rights campaigners have been threatened, beaten and detained while attempting to monitor conditions during the harvest. There is currently thousands of political prisoners in Uzbekistan and Human Rights Watch reported that Uzbek prison authorities routinely beat prisoners and use electric shocks, asphyxiation and sexual humiliation to extract information and confessions. Muslim prisoners have even been tortured for praying. According to a forensic report commissioned by the British embassy, some prisoners were boiled to death.

Uzbekistan also maintains the world’s second-highest rate of modern slavery, around 4% of the country’s population working as modern slaves. The only country with an higher slavery rate is North Korea. Recent reports on violations on human rights in Uzbekistan indicate that violations are still going on without any improvement.

The 2005 civil unrest in Uzbekistan, which resulted in over 1500 people being killed by the military. These events are viewed by many as a landmark event in the history of human rights abuse in Uzbekistan. A concern has been expressed and a request for an independent investigation of the events has been made by the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, the OSCE and other human rights NGOs.

Forced labor repeats every year during harvest. Provincial government offices order schoolteachers to close schools and enforce quotas in the cotton fields. The local authorities send government and private business employees in order to meet cotton production quotas. The Uzbek government combines these orders with threats, detains and tortures Uzbek activists seeking to monitor the situation, and refuses to address the problem of forced labor.

The forced labor system orchestrated by the government of Uzbekistan violates human rights, holds Uzbek citizens as modern slaves, and condemns future generations to a cycle of poverty. Only the high officials of the corrupt regime in place for more than 30 years, profits from the forced labor and the massive exports of cotton. We join Uzbek citizens in supporting the Call to Boycott Uzbek Textile organized by the victims of governmental persecution.

Our commitment against forced labor in Uzbekistan

We endorse the Responsible Sourcing Network coalition against forced labor in Uzbekistan:

We are working to ensure that forced labor does not find its way into our products. We are aware of reports documenting the systemic use of forced labor in the harvest of cotton in Uzbekistan. We are collaborating with a multi-stakeholder coalition to raise awareness of this very serious concern, and press for its elimination.

As a signatory to this pledge, we are stating our firm opposition to the use of forced labor in the harvest of Uzbek cotton. We commit to not source Uzbek cotton for the manufacturing of any of our products until the Government of Uzbekistan ends the practice of forced labor in its cotton sector. Until the elimination of this practice is independently verified by the International Labor Organization, we will maintain this pledge. [1] [2]

The vast majority of the cotton used by our manufacturers is produced in the United States. Notwithstanding this fact, our supplier requires all business partners to confirm, by means of a signed statement, that they do not use or procure any cotton fiber originating from Uzbekistan.

In 2013, our imported t-shirts manufacturers established a cotton traceability assessment for its cotton yarn suppliers in order to ensure that the cotton, yarn or products they supplied did not contain cotton originating from Uzbekistan. The suppliers included in the assessment were selected according to several risk factors that include their proximity to Uzbekistan, and the quantities of yarn purchased by the manufacturer or third party contractors manufacturing their products.

To learn more about our ethical guidelines, please read the Manufacturer’s Code Of Conduct

Sources: [1] – [2][3]


Uzbekistan Cotton Production Facts

Every year the government of Uzbekistan forcibly mobilizes over a million citizens to grow and harvest cotton. The Uzbek government forces farmers to grow cotton and deliver production quotas under threats of penalty, including the loss of the lease to farm the land, criminal charges and fines. The government forces over a million citizens to pick cotton and deliver harvest quotas under threat of penalty, including expulsion from school, job loss, and loss of social security benefits. The government claim that these forced and unpaid labor are a “duty of patriotism”.

  • Uzbekistan is one of the world’s largest cotton exporters, and the government of Uzbekistan uses one of the largest state-orchestrated systems of forced labor to produce it.
  • Forced labor and child labor in the cotton sector of Uzbekistan is unique to the world: it is a state-controlled system, under the direction of a president in power since the end of the Soviet Union, which violates the fundamental rights of millions of Uzbek citizens each year.
  • Cotton picking is dangerous work. Each year, the forced-labor system of cotton production has claimed the lives of several Uzbek citizens, and many forced to pick cotton are exposed to unknown chemicals in the fields, unsanitary housing, and lack of safe drinking water.
  • Uzbek citizens and political refugees launched a call to “Boycott Uzbek Textile and Companies Using It”“We, the undersigned citizens of Uzbekistan, call for an international boycott of Uzbek textile and companies that use it. For the Uzbek textile is produced of cotton harvested using forced labour of children and adults. Foreign investors and partners of Uzbek textile companies must comply with international human rights standards, and press for the Uzbek government to respect human rights. Only independent monitoring by the International Labour Organization can confirm when Uzbekistan ceases the practice of forced labour. We urge the European Union and the United States of America to cancel the trade benefits for Uzbek textile manufacturers, provided by the General System of Preferences. Below is a list of companies in Uzbekistan that feed cotton products into supply chains of Western companies. We call for a boycott.”

  • Until recently, the government mobilized schoolchildren age 11-15 on a mass scale to pick cotton, leaving schools throughout much of the country effectively closed during the harvest season as pupils from the fifth grade and older and teachers from all grades worked in the fields. In recent years, following bans on Uzbek cotton by international retailers and clothing brands alarmed by reports of widespread mobilisation of children into the fields, the country has embarked on reforms. Yet human rights campaigners say forced labour – and sometimes child labour – still persists.
  • In 2015 and 2016, the government of Uzbekistan forced more than a million people, including students, teachers, doctors, nurses, and employees of government agencies and private businesses to the cotton fields, against their will and under threat of serious penalties.
  • The government of Uzbekistan has increased the use of forced adult labor, apparently to compensate for fewer children. Massive mobilization of teachers, doctors, nurses and other adults to the cotton harvest has degraded education and health services. It has also led to widespread extortion of individuals and businesses, with officials demanding contributions individuals and businesses, including multinational enterprises.
  • Profits of the Uzbek cotton sector support only the inner circle of Uzbek government. Uzbek farmers are forced to meet state-established cotton quotas, purchase inputs from one state-owned enterprise, and sell the cotton to a state-owned enterprise at artificially low prices. The system traps farmers in poverty, and the state profits from sales to global buyers. The profits disappear into a secret fund to which only the highest level officials have access, known as the Selkhozfond.
  • The cotton ends up in brand-name retail and apparel supply chains and therefore on consumers, even though citizens of Uzbekistan have called for an international boycott of cotton from Uzbekistan, and over 260 global brands have pledged to avoid while forced and child labor continues.
  • The government of Uzbekistan harasses, detains, and exiles Uzbek citizens who call for recognition of human rights, violating their human rights and denying freedoms of speech and the press.
  • The Uzbek-government forced labor system violates the human rights of Uzbek citizens and condemns future generations to a cycle of poverty. The practice violates Uzbek labor laws and fundamental international labor and human rights conventions ratified by the Uzbek government, including the International Labour Organization Abolition of Forced Labour Convention (No. 105)International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (Article 8), the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons (supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and also known as the “Palermo Protocol”), and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 23).


Cotton and the Uzbek Economy

Uzbekistan is the fifth largest exporter of cotton, estimated export share is 6.5% of the global cotton market.

  • Currently, cotton is estimated to generate over $1 billion USD in export earnings for the Uzbek government. Profits disappear into an extra-budgetary fund in the Finance Ministry to which only the highest-level officials have access. Meanwhile,farmers and citizens forced to pick cotton incur debt to fulfill their assigned quotas and pay penalties for not fulfilling them.
  • The Uzbek government owns all land and has monopoly control over agriculture input suppliers, cotton purchasing,and sales. It imposes annual production quotas on farmers and enforces quotas with coercion, including confiscation of property, to enforce them. The government exerts this coercion against farmers via the financial system used for the cotton sector, threats of physical abuse and legal charges.
  • The Uzbek government is the only legal buyer of cotton. It sets the procurement price for cotton purchased from farmers below its own calculation of production costs. Farmers incur debt in order to fulfill their assigned cotton production quotas, and therefore are unable to hire voluntary labor or invest in good agricultural practices.
  • Governmental control of the cotton industry is a holdover from the Soviet era. In spite of breaking from the USSR in 1991 and restructuring collectivist practices into private farms, a command economy system continues to exist today.
  • Many Uzbek citizens (7% of the total population according to World Bank estimates) emigrate to Russia, Kazakhstan,United Arab Emirates, Turkey, South Korea,and Europe in search of decent work.
  • The International Organization for Migration and government sources have estimated that a quarter of Uzbekistan’s adult population are labor migrants, working abroad due to lack of domestic employment opportunities.


Forced Child Labor

For the first twenty years of Uzbekistan’s independent history, the government closed schools for three months every year and sent more than one million children to pick cotton during the annual cotton harvest.

  • Following a decade of international pressure, in the 2014 cotton harvest the Uzbek government stopped forcing children to pick cotton. This policy change resulted in more than a million children removed from forced labor and demonstrated the Uzbek government’s ability to unilaterally end state-orchestrated forced and child labor in the cotton sector.
  • 2014 was the first harvest that did not include the mass mobilization of children. However, thousands of children were still sent to the fields in at least three regions in 2014, where local officials mobilized them in order to avoid stiff penalties for failing to meet production targets.
  • Third-year college students, of whom approximately 8% are under the age of 18, were mobilized across the country, equating to tens of thousands of 17 year olds in the fields.
  • Reports suggest that mass mobilization of children has not occurred during the harvest of 2015.Unfortunately, the government has not changed policies that ensured the continued, albeit much reduced, use of child labor in the cotton fields. In 2015, the central government continued to order local officials to fulfill their portion of the national cotton production plan under threat of punishment, including dismissal. In some cases, this led local authorities to mobilize child labor rather than risk failing to meet their quotas.
  • In 2015 the Uzbek government again mobilized third-year high-school students under threat of dismissal from school without exempting students under 18, the legal age for cotton work. Officials continued to force adults to fulfill state-assigned work quotas in the cotton fields, resulting in children helping their parents fulfill their quotas and escape punishment.


Forced Adult Labor

Every year, forced labor is imposed upon 1 million uzbeks citizens

  • The Uzbek government has always forced adults to pick cotton during the annual harvest and increased its use of adult forced labor when it reduced its use of forced child labor.
  • University students, government employees, private sector businessmen, and low-income residents are forced to sign “willing volunteer” documents and pick cotton under threat to their education, livelihood, or welfare benefits. -In addition, mass mobilization of education and health-care workers creates a shortage of essential service providers.
  • Private businesses are also ordered to contribute staff to the harvest and face tax fines if they disobey.


Human Rights Violations

The Uzbek government imprisons, arrests, attacks and intimidates citizens who attempt to report forced labor. It also eliminates political opposition; represses civil rights; controls registered civil-society organizations; restricts freedom of movement; censors internet, telephone and other media; and uses detention and violence to curb human rights monitoring.

  • As essential elements of its coercive system of cotton production,the Uzbek government denies freedom of association and due process and represses human rights monitors. There are no independent trade unions, and in 2014 the government imprisoned and tortured independent union organizers Fahriddin Tillaev and Nuriddin Jumaniyazov.
  • Throughout 2015 and 2016, the government increased the frequency and severity of its efforts to silence citizens who report abuse. Officials arrested, beat and filed charges against many human rights activists.
  • The Uzbek government denies freedoms of association, expression and religion. No independent human rights organizations are permitted to work in the country. Authorities repress all forms of freedom of expression and do not allow any organized political opposition, independent media, free trade unions, independent civil society organizations, or religious freedom. Those who attempt to assert rights, or act in ways deemed contrary to state interests, face arbitrary detention, lack of due process, and torture. Forced labor of adults and children continues in 2017.
  • Media criticism of the governmental policies incurs prosecution, fines, and prison terms. Torture and human rights’ violations are commonly used by the police and prison administrations. Since 2013,the International Committee of the Red Cross has been unable to visit Uzbek prisons due to lack of cooperation from the Uzbek government.
  • The government massacred participants in the first and last mass public rally, in Andijan in 2005, and refused repeated international calls for independent investigation.
  • Human rights defenders face threats of government reprisal, including imprisonment and torture. Authorities block international rights groups and media from operating in Uzbekistan. The government has imprisoned more than a dozen human rights defenders on wrongful charges and has brought charges against others because of their work.


Environmental Degradation

Uzbekistan, the world’s sixth leading producer of cotton, is a prime example of how cotton can severely impact a region’s environment. In the 1950s, two rivers in Central Asia, the Amu Darya and and the Syr Darya, were diverted from the Aral sea to provide irrigation for cotton production in Uzbekistan and nearby Turkmenistan.

Today, water levels in the Aral Sea, once the fourth largest lake in the world, has been reduced to 10% of its area in the last 60 years due to water mismanagement, primarily for cotton irrigation. As the Aral dried up, fisheries and the communities that relied on them failed. Over time, the sea became over-salinated and laden with fertilizer and pesticides from the nearby fields. Dust from the dry, exposed lakebed, containing these chemicals and salt saturated the air, creating a public health crisis and settling onto farm fields, contaminating the soil.

The Aral is rapidly becoming a dry sea and the loss of the moderating influence that such a large body of water has on the weather has made the region’s winters much colder and summers hotter and drier.

The Aral Sea’s surrounding soil, air,and water is heavily contaminated with pollutants from fertilizers and pesticides, driving extraordinary rates of tuberculosis, lung disease, and cancer among the marginalized population of Karakalpakstan

Sources and links
Posted on: February 10, 2018 Last update: February 10, 2018