For decades, the government of Uzbekistan systematically forced over a million of its citizens – students, teachers, medical professionals, and employees of government agencies and private businesses – into the country’s cotton fields. Government officials knocked on doors, threatening expulsion from school, job loss, and loss of social security benefits for those who refused to participate in the forced labor.
Much of the cotton picked in the fields of Uzbekistan ends up in global supply chains. Consequently, more than 100 North American and European brands have signed a pledge to boycott Uzbek cotton in an effort to protect workers and put an end to forced labor in the country. “Brands know that their reputation is on the line with their investors and consumers, and so they’re not going to go in easily,” said Patricia Jurewicz of the Responsible Sourcing Network, which hosts the pledge.
The actions by cotton purchasers have had positive effects. Since Shavkat Mirziyoyev became president of Uzbekistan in 2016, new government measures have been implemented to end forced labor in the country’s cotton industry. The president doubled wages for the second year in a row, despite the impact on profit margins. He hopes these measures will allow the country to compete freely with exports from India and Pakistan.