Friday, July 22, 2005

The Human cost of cotton

There is a reason why the US used slave labor to cultivate cotton in the years before the Civil War. It is not only backbreaking labor to harvest it by hand, but it is also very unhealthy. The pollen fills the air and causes lung, eye and skin ailments. Trachoma and other eye infections plagued the deportees sent by Stalin to work on cotton farms in Central Asia during the 1940s. Cuts and scrapes became rapidly infected and septic from the dust and pollen. Children in particular were prone to eye and skin infections. These conditions combined with an untreated malaria epidemic and famine like food shortages killed tens of thousands of Karachais, Crimean Tatars, Meskhetian Turks and Russian-Germans in Southern Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Unfortunately, the brutal exploitation of humanity to produce cotton in Central Asia has not ended. Uzbekistan is one of the world's largest producers of cotton. The state controls the cotton industry and pays the farmers a small share of the world price for cotton. Islam Karimov's dictatorship profits greatly from this exploitation. One of the largest labor contingents in Uzbekistan is in fact not paid at all. Children are involuntarily sent to help with the cotton harvest by local officials during hours that they should be in school learning. A child can pick up to 30 kg of cottton a day. After the harvest, the Uzbek state then sells the cotton to Cargill which ships it to China to produce cheap textiles for the US and European markets. Similar conditions including the large scale use of child labor also exist in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Just something to think about when getting dressed in the morning.

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