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XINJIANG – Reports that public sector workers in Uzbekistan are still being forced to help with the annual cotton harvest have been met with outrage. Yet credible information from China suggests the huge cotton growing region of Xinjiang could be emerging as the new Uzbekistan. Rights groups claim Xinjiang’s Uighur minority are being persecuted and recruited for forced labour. Xinjiang is by far the largest cotton growing region in China, yet NGOs and risk agencies claim it is impossible to know of cotton sourced from the region has been picked using forced labour, in large part because of the secretive nature of Chinese government officials.

Of particular note is the fact that Xinjiang is the epicentre for organic cotton production in China. Indeed, figures from Textile Exchange, released this week, show organic cotton production increased by 71 per cent over the 2016/17 and 2017/18 harvest years in China, with 38,586 MT of organic cotton grown in the country in the 2017/18 harvest. Of this, 34,762 was grown in Xinjiang, raising obvious questions as to whether forced labour was used in the production of organic cotton from the region.

Our own research found there are eight GOTS certified facilities in Xinjiang and we have contacted GOTS for comment on this.

Just how unsafe is cotton sourced from China? Nathan Ruser, researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said recently: “You can’t be sure that you don’t have coerced labour in your supply chain if you do cotton business in China.

“Xinjiang labour and what is almost certainly coerced labour is very deeply entrenched into the supply chain that exists in Xinjiang.”

Meanwhile, the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF) continues to monitor the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan. In its latest dispatch, it claims that in mid-October, heads of regions began sending school and hospital workers to pick cotton.

Highlighting individual cases, on October 28, UGF monitors spoke to a nurse working at the maternity hospital at the Turtkul District Central Hospital in Karakalpakstan. The nurse said the staff had to leave every two days to pick cotton or hand in money to hire pickers. Out of 80 maternity hospital employees, 25 workers or people hired by nurses leave every day to pick cotton, she told the NGO.

Despite this despicable regime, the World Bank continues to pump money into Uzbekistan textile and cotton projects and tout the country as being ‘open for business’ in a bid to lure inward investors.

Back to the Textile Exchange figures for organic cotton, and moving beyond China, the report shows that the global production of organic cotton increased by 56 per cent between the 2016/17 harvest and the 2017/18 harvest. The figures show production is at its highest level for eight years, however, organic cotton still represents just 0.7 per cent of all cotton output.

The report shows there are now 19 countries growing organic cotton, with the biggest of these being India, which produces 47 per cent of all organic cotton, followed by China (21 per cent) and Kyrgyzstan (12 per cent).

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