Fashion world snubs fruits of Uzbek child labor

The former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan is best known as one of the world's largest producers of cotton. But while the industry brings the government a fortune, protesters accuse the ex-Soviet state of exploiting children and abusing human rights.

­Uzbekistan has long been accused of using forced child labor in its cotton-growing industry, which is one of the world's biggest.

Instead of going to school, children are sent to the fields to pick cotton.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the produce harvested with illegal child labor is enjoying the glare of flashing cameras as Gul’nara Karimova – daughter of the Uzbek President – presents her new fashion collection.

Forbes magazine ponders on how she has managed to be so commercially successful

“Well, I graduated from Harvard, so you know – it is a very good school in terms of giving you great tools!” explains Karimova.

The “tools” are Uzbeki children as young as seven who work an average of 70 hours a week instead of going to school.

And an education is not the only thing they are missing out on, with no heating, proper beds or drinking water.

“Mothers are powerless. Some of them stood up for their kids and tried to protect them. They were arrested and taken to the cotton fields. They would be forced to work in the day and would be mass raped at night,” says Nadezhda Ataeva, the president of Human Rights Association in Central Asia.

With the help of forced child labor, Uzbekistan produces around one million tons of cotton, enough to make one billion T-shirts.

The cotton is sold abroad, except to the 60-plus retailers – including Levi and H&M – who have pledged not to buy Uzbek cotton, because the harvest is so abusive. This boycott sends a message to the Uzbek government that enslaving children is never chic.  

But Gul’nara Karimova, who is also Uzbekistan’s ambassador to the UN and the Deputy Foreign Minister, refutes the claims.

And she was also outraged when New York Fashion Week banned her collection from their catwalks last month.

But human rights groups applauded.

“It was a terrible message to be sending to lend a high-profile platform to the senior official of one of the world’s most repressive governments,” says Steve Swerdlow from Human Rights Watch. “The government about six years ago was involved in disproportionate use of force against peaceful protestors in the Eastern city of Andidjan".

Andijan remains the bloodiest chapter in President Islam Karimov’s two decades in office. In 2005, his forces opened fire on an anti-government demonstration, killing 5,000 people.

For other so-called dissidents, jail sentences are common.

Bokhodir Choriyev from “Solidarity” movement spent three years in prison for speaking out after his prosperous business was taken over by the president's people.

“Karimov’s family is an organized criminal mob,” he told RT.” All sectors of the economy, all profitable businesses, are under his control. If you go to Wikileaks, you’ll see that the US ambassador calls Karimov’s daughter a ‘mafia princess’. But all this will stay just words while the war continues in Afghanistan. Karimov is an important ally there and everyone will close their eyes to his crimes."

But Libya, Egypt and Tunisia were once important allies too. However, the Arab Spring showed just how quickly things can change.

So what today appears to be nothing more than a failed fashion show could tomorrow become a failed state swept away by those silenced for too long.