White Gold: The True Cost of Cotton

16th September 2011 to 2nd September 2012
International Slavery Museum, Albert Dock
Free admission

Reviewed by John Owen

A disturbing report from the Environmental Justice Foundation inspires this exhibition, depicting the use of child labour in cotton production in Uzbekistan. It shows how schools are forced to close for months at a time as children are dragged to the cotton fields, along with teachers, to fulfil government quotas. Forced to work long 18hr days and sleep rough in windowless shacks and barracks, they then have to pay for the scraps of low quality food they get out of their own measly wages.

Water has disappeared due to the excessive over-production of cotton and 60% leaking from pipes; cancer and TB also occurs as a direct result from the chemical processes involved. Since the 70s, the Aral Sea has completely dried up and continual dust storms blow around towns everyday, the once prosperous seaports reliant on fishing now have nothing left.

The industry lacks machinery and 90% of the cotton is gathered by hand due to underinvestment, which is why the cheap labour of children is utilized. Teachers who oppose this are coerced and their jobs threatened, farmers are underpaid and the government dictates the rate of pay through their set price quotas, bankrupting many of the already poor farmers. Karimov and his government deal with critics in an authoritative fashion.

You’d be forgiven for thinking the South had won the Civil War but this is happening now and we are currently wearing the goods derived from it on our backs, White Gold indeed.

Children are given no proper protective clothing, no shoes adequate for the terrain and their drinking water comes from pesticide infested irrigation ditches, pure Dickensian style labour but this is organised by the government. Schools need to reach a 11/2 tonne quota a day. They are the 6th largest growers of cotton in the world and the 2nd largest exporter with a 1/3 of the population forced to work for it.

In 2005, a protest over the conditions in Andijan led to the machine-gunning of protestors resulting in hundreds of casualties, how many saw that on the news? Precisely! The account was filmed on a mobile but saw little distribution in the West at the time. This was perhaps when Blair was pally with several of the dictators in the area, agreeing to support his phoney war on terror campaign and receiving Western aid while promising to adhere to ILO (International Labour Organisation) labour regulations, at least on paper that is. All was well. Or so it seemed.

The truth is harsh and vastly different to official accounts of the accords at the top, struck between civil servants and the various mandarins of power. The tabloids got hold of an account where one junior official in the Blair cabinet was sacked for highlighting incidents where political opposition critics were boiled in oil by some unsavoury bloodthirsty dictator that Blair had signed up to the road show on terror. There are dictators and there are evil dictators!

The exhibition sits well in the slavery museum; go and see it and then think how you can stop it!

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