Uzbekistan stands to earn $1 billion annually exporting cotton, an industry that has planted the Central Asian country prominently on the inaugural Global Slavery Index published by an Australian watchdog this week.
Citing officials, Uzreport news agency reported on October 17 that at the ninth annual Cotton and Textile Fair in Tashkent on October 16 and 17, Uzbekistan signed contracts to export 680,000 metric tons of cotton fiber and textile products worth $1 billion a year.
In awkward timing, while Uzreport was hailing the cotton contracts as "a solid basis for future long-term, sustainable and mutually beneficial cooperation between Uzbekistan and foreign countries," the Brisbane-based Walk Free Foundation published its inaugural Global Slavery Index.
During the annual cotton harvest, Uzbekistan “is the country with the second highest prevalence of modern slavery (after Mauritania) in the world,” the accompanying report said. The index ranked Uzbekistan 47th globally overall.
Uzbekistan relies on forced labor to pick the cotton, which is then purchased from farmers at artificially low prices and sold abroad for hard currency. The State Department said this year that Tashkent “subjects its citizens to forced labor through implementation of state policy.”
Following a boycott of Uzbek cotton by Western retailers, Uzbekistan has turned to Asian markets. Before the fair, Tashkent had reportedly signed preliminary contracts to supply 200,000 metric tons of cotton fiber to Bangladesh and 300,000 metric tons to China annually.
Perhaps to combat its international image as a medieval dictatorship propped up by the sweat of slave laborers including children, at the cotton fair Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev said that Uzbekistan would increase mechanized harvesting, and would gather 80 to 90 percent of the crop mechanically by 2016.
The semi-official Podrobno.uz website reported that the Tashkent Tractor Plant had already produced 1,000 cotton-picking combines, designed with firms from South Korea and Italy, and would supply another 3,000 machines to farmers next year.
It is impossible to verify those numbers. But previously Uzbek officials have preferred hand picking because, they’ve said, it is easier on the fibers and the country frequently suffers gasoline shortages.