Tashkent accused of cotton slavery

Tashkent accused of cotton slavery

Uzbek cotton is weighed. Source: Wikimedia

A report on global slavery ranks Uzbekistan among the five worst offenders in terms of the number of people forced into modern slavery and the second as a proportion of the population, after North Korea.
With its forced cotton labour, Uzbekistan came fifth in the 2016 Global Slavery Index with 1,236,000 people living in slavery in the study by the Australian NGO Walk Free Foundation. The definition of “modern slavery” includes people who are trapped in forced labour, human trafficking, debt bondage, sexual trafficking, forced marriage and other “slave-like exploitation.”

The report said Uzbekistan ranked near the top because Tashkent used one of the world’s largest state-sponsored systems of forced labour to harvest cotton. The authorities deny that forced labour is an official policy, saying that citizens volunteer for reasons of civic responsibility and take part in a form of traditional voluntary labour called “khashar”.

According to Harvest Report 2015 by the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, Uzbekistan in 2015 produced 3.35 million tonnes of cotton, almost reaching India’s output as the world’s biggest cotton producer. Uzbekistan expected to export 6.8 million tonnes in 2016. Rebounding from a drop in demand in the 1990s, adults and children have been forced into a military-style draft.


The Walk Free Foundation report said there were almost 46 million slaves on the planet. It said that administrations, teachers, factory staff and doctors were forced to leave their jobs every autumn for several weeks to pick cotton for little or no payment. Anyone who refused was threatened with punishment and dismissal from state-sector jobs, said Andrew Forrest, the co-founder of the Walk Free Foundation.

“That, unfortunately, defines itself as modern slavery,” Forrest said. “The central leadership of the government is able to distribute those profits as they see fit. The people who made the profits, which is the people who plant the cotton and harvest the cotton, have no say in the distribution of that income. They are just there to do the government’s bidding, to make that revenue. And they see none of it.”

The Global Slavery Index said the government, under international pressure, had “begun to take steps to improve the situation”, adding that during last year’s cotton harvest, more than 1 million people were forced to work. It praised the governments of Croatia, Georgia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Moldova, Albania and Serbia in their efforts to combat modern slavery and forced labour.

The report added that other countries that have systematically forced their populations into labour included Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Belarus and Russia.

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