COTTONING ON TO MODERN SLAVERY
The annual cotton harvest has just started in Uzbekistan, and already there have been reports of forced labour.
Uzbekistan is the fifth largest cotton exporting country in the world, and Turkmenistan is close behind in seventh place. Both countries have historically used state-controlled forced labour as part of cotton production.
Both governments own most of the land that the cotton is grown on, and this is leased to farmers. A cotton production quota and procurement price is set by the governments, who then buy and sell all the cotton, making enormous profits.
HOW ARE WE AFFECTED?
Both countries, although small, produce a huge amount of cotton. Much of this is sold to major garment manufacturing hubs such as China and Bangladesh. This trade therefore carries significant value within the global garment industry, and it’s conceivable that the trade of Uzbek cotton is introducing modern slavery in the retail supply chain at home.
As part of the Modern Slavery Act, large UK registered businesses will soon be required to publish an annual statement detailing the measures taken to address forced labour in their supply chains. Many companies may want to stop Uzbek cotton from entering their supply chain as part of their ethical sourcing strategy. But how can they find out?
In order to tackle modern slavery in retail supply chains, companies need visibility over their suppliers. This means knowing where each component of a garment is sourced from, which is easier said than done. However, Segura’s software enables companies to maintain supply chain visibility once an order is placed, allowing them to do business on their own terms.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Until recently, the Uzbekistan government used schoolchildren to pick cotton, effectively closing schools during the harvest season. The country faced global criticism over its use of child labour, and this led to a ban on Uzbek cotton by leading retailers and fashion brands.
As a result of this international pressure, the Uzbek government altered its forced labour policies in the cotton industry. From 2012, children younger than 16 were no longer widely used during the harvest. However, the Cotton Campaign found that this change simply resulted in increased pressure on adults to fill gaps in the workforce.
The Uzbek government's approach to child labour may have been more tactical than ethical, as this compliance eased international pressures and trading sanctions. The US Department of State recently upgraded Uzbekistan to tier 2 in its 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report.
However, four million adults were forced to work in the 2014 harvest, including teachers, doctors and nurses. This undermined essential public services, but individuals faced fines, forced resignations or expulsions if they did not comply with orders. According to CNN, cotton pickers often sleep in barracks without running water or basic sanitary equipment. Human rights activists and journalists also face harassment and persecution.
These conditions can certainly be considered as supply chain slavery, but improved transparency could help retailers to do business on their own terms.
Originally Published 22/10/2015