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Can the stain of forced and child labour be removed from cotton?

SOMETIME AROUND the middle of the 19th century, Maria Sutton Clemments worked as a slave on an Arkansas cotton plantation. Years later she remembered one typically vicious overseer. If her fellow slaves “didn’t chop that cotton just right,” she recounted, “he would have them tied up to a stake or big sapling and beat him until the blood ran out of the gashes.”

Fast forward around 175 years from that Arkansas scene, and Ruslan Utayev is recalling his own experience of being forced to pick cotton, in Uzbekistan, less than a decade ago. Between September and November, he says, the then president, Islam Karimov, closed Mr Utayev’s school and made its children and teachers work the fields. His shift started at 6am and he was expected to pick 100kg of cotton a day, a barely conceivable amount of what is, in essence, fluff. Those who failed to reach their quotas were spared the whip, but could expect public humiliation from their supervisors.

Like countless others, both Susan Merritt and Mr Utayev were the victims of the world’s hunger for cotton. American plantations supplied the newly mechanised cotton mills of Europe, particularly Britain. And it was a desire to free itself from a reliance on Western cotton that led pre-Soviet Russia to turn vast swathes of its Central Asian conquests over to the crop. Both Western capitalism and, later, Soviet communism, had the same effect: to compel the unwilling to harvest a labour-intensive crop as cheaply as possible. The legacy has endured. Today the world’s attention has turned to the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, a gulag-splattered region in western China. There, companies bus in minorities to cotton fields under the pretence of creating “a sense of unity and nationality”, says Kai Hughes, executive director of the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC), an industry group (though he was speaking in a personal capacity).

Farmers produced an estimated 26m tonnes of cotton in 2019-20, worth $41bn, according to the ICAC. It is the most widely farmed product that you can’t eat, reckons the World Wildlife Fund. America’s Department of Labour lists 17 countries believed still to use forced or child labour in their cotton industries. Miscreants span the globe, from Argentina to Egypt to China. Of the world’s ten biggest cotton producers, only three—America, Australia and Mexico—are considered free of it (and some argue that, given its use of prisoners to pick the crop, America is lucky to be off the blacklist).

Nowadays few pickers face such blatant coercion as those in Arkansas or Uzbekistan did, or the Uyghurs do. Labourers are more likely to be entrapped by debt, or exploited by agents. India’s experience is common. Pickers there tend to be migrants who move with the seasons. Often jobs in far-off states are arranged through middlemen, who take an advance, ostensibly to cover accommodation and such like. The effect is to bond the harvester to the agent until the money is repaid. At the same time, the majority of cotton farms are smallholdings. According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, a think-tank, of the 100m farmers who cultivate the crop around the world, around 90% do so on less than two hectares of land. That discourages mechanisation, forcing them to rely on cheap human labour.

The use of children is a separate, though related, issue. It comes in two guises. The first is migrant families taking their offspring to toil in the fields with them. The second is farmers using them on their own holdings. Children are employed not only because they are cheap. Farmers also prize their small, nimble hands, particularly during seeding season, says Purva Gupta of the Global March Against Child Labour, a human-rights group. When that is combined with rural poverty and inadequate schools, many parents think their kids’ time is best served working. Lax regulation doesn’t help. Child labour in India, for example, is outlawed only for hazardous occupations, among them mining. Cotton farming doesn’t feature, even though the children can often be exposed to dangerous agricultural chemicals.

Brand spanking due?
Many people argue that the solution to forced labour lies with global clothing brands, the ultimate beneficiaries of such practices. Why are they not being more rigorous when they source their textiles? Many brands say they would like to be, for both legal and reputational reasons. The trouble is cotton’s convoluted journey from farm to shop. Even a “simple” supply chain, says Mark Sumner of the University of Leeds, looks something like this: a farmer and his small-holder neighbours sell raw cotton to a ginner (who separates the fibres from the seeds), often through an agent. The ginner then supplies huge global traders, which amalgamate cotton from around the world, sorted by quality. They in turn sell to yarn producers. Next come the textile manufacturers which knit or weave the fabric and sell to dyers and finishers. Finally the cloth is ready to be sold to a garment manufacturer which produces the finished item. These tend to be the only firms in the supply chain with which the brands have a contract.

Even if those further down that chain had the will to track which bales came from which field (which it is not in their interest to do) it would be logistically unworkable. And expecting brands to audit the practices of firms with which they don’t have a contract is a big ask. Even the biggest clothing companies would represent only a small fraction of the trade of downstream firms, giving them little leverage when it comes to enforcing standards.

The problem, then, can feel intractable. Yet there are things that can be done. Some schemes reward firms that invest in ethical sources of cotton. The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) is one example. It certifies brands using a concept called “mass balance”. When a clothing firm places an order for finished garments, it asks for a certain weight of certified cotton to be associated with the order. BCI then ensures that a farmer somewhere in the world produces the same weight of cotton to its standards, which not only include criteria on labour but also on environmental impact. This credit is passed through the supply chain. Thus, although the clothing firm cannot guarantee that the actual material it uses has been produced without forced labour, it can say that it has been instrumental in producing the equivalent amount of ethical cotton.

Motivated governments also help hugely. Around the turn of this century, for example, Brazil decided to make a concerted effort to stamp out child labour. Laws were tightened, penalties increased and government inspectors sent out to farms. Such measures have “effectively priced child labour out of the market there”, reckons Genevieve LeBaron of the University of Sheffield.

Authorities in importing countries must play their part, too. Xinjiang produces more than 80% of China’s raw cotton, says Mr Hughes, and the country as a whole is the world’s second-largest producer after India. Last month the American government placed “Withhold Release Orders” on firms accused of using forced Uyghur labour, in effect making their cotton illegal to import. Since then China’s share of America’s cotton-textile market has dropped from 31% to 26%, says Mr Hughes. (Although China still has a huge domestic market.)

Reaping the harvest
Many point to Uzbekistan as a beacon of hope. Seventy per cent of the country’s arable land is used for cotton (often in rotation with wheat), according to the International Labour Organisation, a UN agency. Some 1.75m people—one in eight of the working-age population—work picking the crop. Many were once forced to do so. But following the death of President Karimov in 2016, the country decided to clean up its act. Under the pressure of sanctions, forced and child labour were criminalised. Smallholders were also nudged into co-operatives and foreign experts encouraged into the country.

One such was Dan Patterson, a Mississippian who in 2018 set up the Silverleafe farm cluster in Jizzakh, in the east of the country. Its co-operative now operates on 27,000 hectares. That has allowed Mr Patterson to mechanise. Mr Utayev, the schoolchild forced into the fields a decade ago, no longer toils with his hands. Instead of 100kg of hand-picked cotton, he operates a harvester that brings in more than 120,000kg of raw seed a day. Higher wages mean he can now take care of his family, he says. The crop from each plot on Silverleafe is radio-tagged and sent to the cluster’s own ginner. The co-operative is also building a textile mill. Both digitisation and vertical integration make it much easier to track each bale of cotton “from dirt to shirt” says Mr Patterson.

The ILO says Uzbekistan is on the way to eradicating forced and child labour. It reckons the number of people participating involuntarily in the harvest fell by 40% in 2019 compared with the previous year, to around 102,000. Others, like the Cotton Campaign, an umbrella group that includes brands, producers and NGOs, are more cautious. Allison Gill, its senior coordinator, thinks the number may sneak up again this year. As covid-19 hits the economy and depresses the price of cotton, she says, firefighters and even bankers are being mobilised on some plantations. For the moment, none of the group’s members favour lifting a boycott of Uzbek cotton. But if Uzbekistan can prove that eliminating forced labour is not only ethical, but also financially rewarding, other countries might eventually cotton on, too.

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