Rights activists are embracing an economic argument against Uzbekistan’s ongoing use of forced labor in the cotton sector: a reliance on slaves is far more inefficient than using wage labor.
Representatives of the advocacy group Anti-Slavery International organized a small protest outside the Uzbek Embassy in London on September 30, during which they attempted to deliver a petition signed by over 2,700 people that calls for an end to the used of forced labor.
“Year on year hundreds of thousands of Uzbek citizens are forced by their own government to pick cotton for the benefit of a narrow political elite,” Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International told Eurasianet.org.
The petition is addressed to Uzbek President Islam Karimov. It states that the Uzbek government’s continuing reliance on forced labor “condemns Uzbekistan to a cycle of under-development as generations are denied education, health-care and decent work opportunities.”
“The time to end state-orchestrated, modern-day slavery in Uzbekistan is now,” it adds. The document specifically calls on the state to raise the price paid for raw cotton, something that would encourage farmers to offer higher wages to laborers. Higher wages would, in turn, discourage the use of forced labor and lead to greater efficiencies in the sector, as workers would have a greater incentive to pick more cotton, faster.
Anti-Slavery International also urged the Uzbek government to grant the International Labor Organization unfettered access to Uzbek cotton farms in order to monitor the harvest, as well as to allow human rights organizations, activists and journalists to report on the cotton sector without the threat of retaliation. Anti-Slavery International mounted the petition drive in cooperation with the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations dedicated to ending the use of forced labor across Central Asia. [Editor’s Note: The Cotton Campaign receives funding from the Open Society Foundations; EurasiaNet.org operates under OSF’s auspices.]
In 2012, Uzbek authorities banned the use of child labour in the cotton harvest, but according to numerous reports the ban is routinely ignored. Despite the fact that over a hundred apparel companies worldwide say they have stopped using Uzbek cotton, many still buy their cotton from Daewoo, a South Korean conglomerate that runs processing plants in Uzbekistan.
No one from the Uzbek Embassy came out to accept the petition. “The fact that no one… had the courage to meet us shows that they know how wrong slavery is,” said McQuade. “It has no place in the 21st century.”