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*Uzbekistan is the second largest exporter of cotton in the world, selling over 800,000 tonnes of cotton every year. *

Europe is its major buyer. But while the former Soviet Republic is at the forefront of global cotton production, its human rights and environmental record lags far behind the rest of the world. Forced child labour, human rights violations, excessive pesticide use, the draining of an ocean and severe poverty are all rife in cotton production in Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan once had the fourth largest body of water in the world – The Aral Sea. Now the Aral sea is only 15% of its original size. This is due largely to the dependence of cotton agriculture in the surrounding regions on irrigation, using water piped from the Aral Sea. Thousands of people who depended upon the Aral Sea for their livelihoods and as a source of fish have been displaced as a result.

The Uzbekistan government shuts down schools in the autumn and forces children as young as seven to pick cotton in the fields.

The government take two thirds of the revenue of the cotton while the farmers are left with one third, barely enough to live on.

Due to high profile campaign by the Environmental Justice Foundation, many retailers are choosing to ban the use of cotton from Uzbekistan in any of their products.

Through their buying practices, fashion businesses can make a stand against the unfair practices in Uzbekistan and have the potential to change the lives and opportunities of thousands of people as a result.

Extract from Environmental Justice Foundation report, ““WHITE GOLDTHE TRUE COST OF COTTON”:http://www.ejfoundation.org/page141.html”

Instead of using machines to harvest cotton, as is done in other major cotton exporting countries, Uzbekistan’s government uses children. Every autumn state officials shut down schools, and send students, together with their teachers, to the cotton fields.

Tens of thousands of children, some as young as seven, are forced to undertake weeks of arduous labour for little or no financial reward. Headmasters are issued with cotton quotas and made to ensure that students pick the required daily amount. Children who fail to pick their target of cotton are reportedly punished with detentions and told that their grades will suffer. Those who refuse to take part can face academic expulsion.

Uzbekistan’s cotton farmers are made to suffer too. Despite producing a crop worth over US$1billion, those forced to grow cotton receive little of the revenues generated from its sale.

Official figures suggest farmers receive around one third of the value of their cotton. In practice many get far less. Instead, Uzbekistan’s cotton exports, which represent around 60% of the state’s hard currency export earnings, are appropriated by the country’s totalitarian dictatorship led by former Soviet official, President Islam Karimov.

Side by side with the human rights violations caused by cotton, is an environmental catastrophe of astonishing proportions. In order to irrigate its 1.47 million hectares under cotton, Uzbekistan’s regime has all but eradicated the Aral Sea. Once the world’s fourth largest body of water, the Aral is now reduced to just 15% of its former volume.

Appalling mismanagement of this vital water resource has witnessed the disappearance of the sea’s 24 species of native fish from its waters, the drying out of associated wetlands and the creation of tens of thousands of environmental refugees; the former dependents of the Aral’s ecosystem.

Such gross exploitation of a nation and its environment has only been possible within a framework of extreme control. President Karimov has eliminated any form of democratic representation; prohibited a free media, subverted basic civil liberties and institutionalised the use of torture and intimidation within the police, National Security Service and prisons.

Government attitude to public protest – peaceful or not – is brutal, as most recently witnessed by the response to demonstrations in the town of Andijan in May 2005. Demonstrators were met with indiscriminate shooting leading to an estimated 700 deaths and the subsequent arbitrary arrest of activists, human rights defenders and independent journalists.

Given such conditions, the Uzbek people have been left with little option but to abide by the commands of the Karimov administration. Tellingly, those Uzbeks who have felt able to speak out are clear in their condemnation of the cotton industry and united in their view that under the current regime it does little if anything to benefit the people, but much to support a corrupt and brutal government.

Despite these well known abuses, Europe remains the major destination for Uzbekistan’s cotton exports. Traders continue to associate with the regime, buying cotton in exchange for a substantial hard currency income, and high street fashion outlets sell clothes manufactured from Uzbek cotton.

The Environmental Justice Foundation is now calling for action to address the human rights abuses and environmental destruction associated with Uzbekistan’s cotton production.


  1. Suspend cotton and cotton related imports derived from Uzbekistan until it can be demonstrated that Uzbekistan no longer uses child labour in cotton production;
  2. Promote a “child labour free” label for cotton products;


  1. Work within the World Trade Organisation to introduce conditions on trade that would punish manufacturers and producers who use child labour at any stage of the supply chain;
  2. Consider trade sanctions against Uzbekistan until the country can demonstrate that its cotton production is free of child labour;


  1. Avoid procurement of Uzbek cotton until such time that child and forced child labour are eradicated from the production process;
  2. Develop an effective product labelling system guaranteeing that neither child nor forced child labour is used at any stage of clothing manufacture;


  1. Demand that all products containing cotton are clearly labelled stating the country of origin of the cotton fibre;
  2. Pick your cotton carefully – refuse to buy cotton products without certain knowledge that they have been produced without causing human rights abuses or environmental destruction;
  3. Choose products which have been certified as fair trade.

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