The central-Asian country of Uzbekistan is one of the largest exporters of cotton in the world. However, much of their cotton is made from child and forced labour. This cotton finds its way to garment factories and suppliers and eventually into Australian shops.
The Uzbek government forces more than a million adults and children to plant and harvest cotton every year. Many of these workers endure unsafe working conditions and often face threats of violence and penalties if they do not comply.
Uzbekistan is one of the few countries in the world where forced labour is systematically organised by the state. The government shuts down schools and public offices during harvest season and enlists youths, teachers and civil servants to pick cotton. This exacts a significant economic toll on the workers, who often do not earn enough to cover the costs of leaving employment.
Activists who campaign against forced labour face severe repercussions. According to the Uzbek-German Forum’s 2015 World Harvest Report, human rights advocates are frequently targeted by the Uzbek government.
“The government unleashed an unprecedented campaign of harassment and persecution against independent monitors to attempt to cover up its use of forced labour while taking pains to make widespread, massive forced mobilisation appear voluntary,” the report said.
“A powerful climate of fear pervaded the harvest season and facilitated the government’s forced mobilization of workers.
“Nearly everyone we spoke with during the season indicated that they were directly threatened or understood implicit threats if they refused to pick cotton, most crucially that they would lose their jobs.”
The synod’s Justice and International Mission (JIM) unit is part of the International Cotton Campaign, a global coalition dedicated to eradicating child and forced labour in cotton production.
Last year, the JIM unit asked the Super Retail Group, owner of brands such as Rebel and Ray’s Outdoors, to take action to ensure their products are not sourced from Uzbek cotton. Uniting Church members wrote letters and sent emails and postcards to the Super Retail Group.
The public advocacy has led to the Super Retail Group signing the Cotton Pledge, which publicly affirms their commitment to not use Uzbek cotton in their products. This positive step will add further pressure on the Uzbek government to abide by international regulations.
More than 240 companies have now signed the pledge, including Adidas, Levi Strauss, Target, Cotton On, Myer and Kmart. The global pressure is having an impact with the International Labour Organization (ILO) reporting a decrease in the number of children sent to the cotton fields.
However, the exploitation of adult workers remains an ongoing issue. The Uzbek-German Forum said that public service organisations such as schools and hospitals are sending up to 60 per cent of their staff to work on the cotton fields during the harvest period. This is not only an infringement of human rights, but also affects essential services throughout Uzbekistan.
The JIM unit will continue to encourage Australian companies to eliminate slave labour and human trafficking from their supply chains. You can follow their campaign updates at http://www.justact.org.au/