The central Asian country of Uzbekistan is currently one of the world’s largest exporters of cotton, selling over 800,000 tons of this ‘white gold’ a year. However, behind this ‘white gold’ lies a dark story of widespread government-sponsored forced child labor and harrowing working conditions.

A report released by the International Labor Rights Forum, reveals that for decades the Uzbek government has used the forced labor of its schoolchildren starting in the early primary grades, college and university students, and civil servants, to harvest that cotton by hand. After the beginning of the school year, the government orders the closure of schools in order for children to report to the fields for the cotton harvest.

Working conditions are dangerous often leading to injuries and sometimes death. Children who refuse to participate in the cotton harvest are either beaten or face mental intimidation. Parents are unable to speak out against their children’s forced labor for fear of losing jobs or getting social services taken away.

This is where your voice is needed. The cotton harvest season has recently begun and just like every other year, children are being taken out of school, put in the fields and are missing out on much needed education. The cotton picked ends up on the clothes that you and I buy. Our allies at the International Labor Rights Forum have worked hard and have been able to get most major companies to speak out publicly about Uzbek cotton and/or develop company policies related to Uzbek cotton. Recently, Abercrombie & Fitch has announced that it has a policy of not sourcing Uzbek cotton, however Gymboree, the children’s clothing store, has consistently been unresponsive to inquiries from shareholders and advocates.

Global Exchange’s SweatFree campaign encourages you to take action to eradicate the use of child labor in Uzbek cotton fields. Demand that Gymboree end their silence.

For more information about child labor in Uzbekistan, visit the International Labor Rights Forum’s Cotton Campaign. Also be sure to watch Environmental Justice Foundation’s film: White Gold – The True Cost of Cotton.

White Gold – the true cost of cotton from Environmental Justice Foundation on Vimeo.

In addition, if you are in Washington, DC Sunday, October 24th, check out the Fair Trade Pavilion at the Green Festival. Naik Banavanthu from Global Exchange, along with Amanda White of Green America and Tim Newman of the International Labor Rights Forum will host a panel discussion titled, Fair Trade Cotton: Can it Make a Difference?

This panel will discuss issues in the process of producing cotton in India and its effects on small farmers, children and the environment. Speakers will also discuss the impact of Fair Trade cotton and apparel.

The panel will be Sunday, October 24th at 1:30PM.

photo credit: Noam Armonn