It was another good year for cotton growers in Uzbekistan, who are expected to produce 3.35 million tons in the 2013 season – as high as the production from 2012. That’s considered a victory for the industry, but Uzbekistan remains under fire from many other countries for its alleged use of child slave labor.
The fact that 90% of this year’s crop is said to be “higher grade” is impressive, given that farmers had to endure less-than-optimal growing conditions in 2013. Early in the season, there was heavier than usual rainfall, and later temperatures were unusually high. Combined with strong sandstorms and the proliferation of pests and diseases, the environmental conditions posed a serious challenge to farmers.
Despite the successes Uzbekistan enjoyed in the fields, the country continues to suffer for its labor practices. Critics say that as many as 2 million laborers, many of them children as young as six years old, are forced into the fields during harvest time. They are paid very little, if at all, for their work, in addition to missing time at school.
More than 130 global brands and retailers have pledged to not buy Uzbek fiber, 70% of which is purchased by China and Bangladesh. But unless the buyers make it mandatory to show country of origin on all purchase orders, it’s very difficult for brands and retailers to know whether their products contain Uzbek cotton. It can be done, but it’s a complex and expensive process to monitor legal documentation throughout the long and complex supply chain.