At first glance, the recently announced agreement between Uzbekistan and Bangladesh doesn’t seem strange at all. The agreement itself is fairly straightforward: Uzbekistan will deliver at least 200,000 tonnes of cotton annually to ensure Bangladeshi mills have a reliable supply of raw material.
It also makes sense from the supply/demand and geography perspectives. Uzbekistan is the world’s sixth-largest cotton producer and third-largest exporter in the world, and Bangladesh is the world’s sixth-largest cotton consumer and third-largest importer. And since both countries are in the central/south Asia region, the delivery process should be relatively smooth, uneventful and inexpensive.
What makes the agreement interesting is that each country is facing considerable international pressure for its labor practices:
- Uzbekistan is often criticized for its use of forced child labor during harvest time. The practice has resulted in sanctions from the international community, including the threat of loss of priority trading status with both the European Union and United States – two hugely important markets for products made from Uzbek cotton.
- Bangladesh’s own labor industry has come under international scrutiny as well, after more than 1,100 garment factory workers were killed when a shoddy, six-story building collapsed in April 2013. A survey done by the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology found that 90% of the factories inspected were “risky structures.”
Each country is working to reassure the global community that it is working hard to improve its image, so entering into a trade agreement with a country facing criticism of its own labor practices seems to be an odd choice. Apparently, the old axiom – “Politics makes strange bedfellows” – applies to the cotton trade as well.