Cotton Panic!

Cotton Panic! explores the knock-on effects of the abolishment of slavery in the USA on the cotton industry in Manchester in the 1860s. The show began by focusing on the working conditions in the mills and moved through the struggle that resulted from the lack of raw materials after the slaves were freed from the cotton fields in the South of the USA. The growing movement for worker’s rights in the UK supported the abolition but the transition to more ethically sourced material was not easy.

Today, working conditions have vastly improved in both the UK and USA but 150 years after that tumultuous time there are still large numbers of exploited workers elsewhere in the world. NASA images from 2014 showed that the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan (formerly the world’s fourth largest lake) had completely dried up. The loss was attributed to intensive cotton farming which uses very large amounts of water. But the crop was also being harvested using forced labour, sanctioned by the Uzbek government, making this both an environmental and humanitarian disaster.

According to an article published in The Guardian at the time, the harvested cotton would most likely be shipped to Bangladesh and China who are key suppliers of European brands. Further down the supply chain, the conditions in some Bangladeshi clothing factories were widely criticized after the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza which cost 1,135 people their lives and injured a further 2,515. The collapse was blamed on the swampy unstable ground outside of the capital Dhaka and an additional four floors that were added to factory without permission.

The fight to end exploitation of workers in the cotton industry is far from over, but there are ways that both individuals and companies can bring about positive change. Organisations such as the Cotton Campaign aim to end the exploitation of cotton workers in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan by advocating to the governments in those countries and other governments, companies, investors and international institutions who may be able to influence them. They also aim to raise public awareness and support civil liberties to end both child labour and forced labour in the cotton fields.

Although these working conditions would be unimaginable in European businesses, the products produced using these methods often make it to European suppliers. This means that it’s also up to companies and consumers here to say no to unethically sourced clothing. Unsustainably cheap clothing comes with a hidden human cost measured in misery, but by choosing to shop ethically we can help to end this exploitation. (TP)

- Tom Patterson

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Cotton Campaign

The Aral Sea Basin - Guardian

The Rana Plaza Collapse - The Independent

Modern Cotton Production Facts

The Struggle for Worker's Rights