Engaging in some "banquet diplomacy," last week Uzbek officials treated a visiting delegation of Pakistani officials led by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani to a long evening of traditional singing and dancing and a lavish seven-course meal, The Express Tribune of Pakistan reported.
The Uzbek government pulled out all the stops at a reception hosted by Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev at the Hotel Intercontinental in Tashkent on March 24. President Islam Karimov received Gilani, calling Pakistan "an important partner."
The result: a struggling Pakistan agreed to take a delivery of 1 million bales of cotton -- and without having to pay the standard 80 percent advance payment, centralasiaonline.com reported citing Pakistan's The News International.
All Pakistan Textile Mills Association (APTMA) Chairman Gohar Ejaz told The News that Pakistan had been unable to get cotton from its other foreign suppliers.
Pakistan lost as much as 15 percent of its own cotton crop last season due to heavy floods in which more than 1,000 people died. Supply lines were also blocked, making delivery uncertain.
Although Pakistan has not purchased cotton from Uzbekistan in 10 years, it is willing to do business with Uzbekistan now to save its own textile industry due to shortages. Islamabad has proved indifferent to the exploitation of children in Uzbekistan, although domestic media has covered the issue of Uzbekistan's deplorable practices.
According to The Express Tribune, the ingredients for the impressive feast were brought in from Tashkent, Bukhara, and Samarkand and took a day to prepare:
The seven-course menu included red caviar with butter, an assortment of cold meat cuts, a fish platter, a cheese platter, salads, pickled vegetables, mezzeh, mini fish shashlik served with perch fish and prawns, cream of spinach soup, special Uzbek plov and a croquant parfait with sliced seasonal fruits as dessert.
By contrast, the children coerced to work in the fields bringing in the harvest are fed "third-rate macaroni," according to fergananews.com. A freelance journalist in Bukhara wrote an eyewitness report:
"We were mostly served pasta, often with flour worms, and suspicious soups," one Bukhara student, who gave her name as Nargiza, said. "Many refused to eat it, because it was dangerous. Several people became ill."
Families also usually have to pay out of their own meager earnings for food.
Activists hoping to bring EU cotton traders to account for their possible relationship to forced child labor in Uzbekistan have begun to see the fruits of its efforts.
This week, Switzerland joined the United Kingdom in accepting the complaints filed by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) in Germany to the Organisation for Economic Co-Cooperation and Development (OECD). The OECD, a 33-member body promoting economic sustainability, maintains guidelines for corporations that include human rights, specifically labor conditions.
ECCHR, joined by partner organizations Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights of Germany, Guido Ehrler of Switzerland and Sherpa of France filed complaints to the OECD last October, citing seven companies doing business in the EU member states of Switzerland, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Their contention was that EU cotton traders were profiting from forced child labor, widely documented as a systematic practice in Uzbekistan
While the acceptance by the UK and Swiss National Contact Points (NCPs) for the OECD don't constitute an admission that the companies cited are in fact benefiting from child exploitation in Uzbekistan, it does mean that half the battle is won in getting companies to look more closely at their partners and supply chains.
Most importantly, the companies counter-claim -- that they didn't have sufficient relationship to the Uzbek sources to be the subject of a complaint -- has been thrown out by both the UK and Swiss NCPs, i.e. the contact points within those governments who look at OECD issues.
What follows now is a mediation process where ECCHR will present their findings and discuss a resolution with the companies. Because it's a confidential process, ECCHR is not commenting now on their arguments, or speculating on the possible outcome.
Yet a powerful argument has already been made in the ECCHR complaint itself, drawing on the work of a number of groups like the Uzbek German Forum for Human Rights which has been documenting the widespread and frequent use of children in the fields, taking them from homes and schools. ECCHR maintains that EU companies benefit from this abuse of children, which is a violation of Uzbekistan's commitments under the International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions. And now European governments are starting to accept the proposition that they must take seriously the possibility of their complicity in this practice.
For example, the assessment of the complaint filed on Cargill published on the British government's website now, states:
a) That Cargill may buy cotton from Uzprommashimpeks, one of three companies controlled by the Government of Uzbekistan which sell to international buyers the cotton produced in Uzbekistan. The ECCHR further submitted that: Cargill has a branch office in Tashkent (Uzbekistan) which specialises in buying cotton; that Cargill lists central Asia as one of its key cotton suppliers; and that Cargill participated at the 5th Tashkent Cotton Fair on 14-15 October 2009;
b) That Cargill, in view of its relationship with the Government of Uzbekistan outlined in paragraph 3(a) above, is in a position to influence, either alone or as part of international groups (such as the Bremen Cotton Exchange or the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC)), the Uzbek authorities regarding their use of forced and child labour. The ECCHR further alleged that Cargill chose not to join an international group of cotton (and cotton products) retailers boycotting the use of cotton produced in Uzbekistan;
c) That the cotton bought by Cargill in Uzbekistan is produced through the systematic use of child and forced labour supported by the Government of Uzbekistan, which in turn negatively affects the sustainable development of the region;
In the summary of its decision, the UK NCP upheld the right to discuss the issue in these terms, although not (yet) the findings. Cargill argued that the complaint should be rejected due to a lack of an "investment nexus" between Cargill Cotton and Uzbekistan, or between Cargill Cotton and the companies owned by the government of Uzbekistan.
But the UK NCP said the issues "merit further consideration" -- while not stating that the UK NCP considers Cargill to have violated OECD guidelines.
Germany's response to the complaint is expected at the end of April, which would mean a total of three EU countries indicated and still a fourth -- France -- to be heard from.
The ECCHR complaint process is a form of "soft law," and involves using an international organization's non-binding guidelines and complaint procedures in an adversarial fashion so as to get companies voluntarily to abide by the labor rights in the guidelines.
Cotton prices are at their highest in 140 years, the Wall Street Journal wrote in October 2010 -- and they keep climbing.
The price last week on the market in India, the world's second largest producer, is $1.93 per pound -- it's been hovering around $2.00/lb. for some time and is expected to stay around this price.
Not since the Reconstruction era in the US has cotton fetched such a price on world markets, due to poor harvests, floods in Pakistan and China, and growing demand from China.
Manufacturers are concerned that they will have to pass on higher costs to consumers, and Nike has already raised the price of sneakers for 2012.
What does this mean for school-children forced to work in the fields in Uzbekistan? It certainly doesn't mean they will be paid higher wages. Although there is nominally a private farming system, the market in Uzbekistan is not really free -- sale prices are state-controlled and farmers are assigned quotas they must meet or face severe reprisals like the loss of their land leases.
As we saw from the 2010 harvest when prices rose to $1/lb, the incentive to use children was greater precisely so that local and national officials could keep more of the profits. If farms could freely sell their output and set wages accordingly, they might be able to lure back adult migrant laborers who left Uzbekistan in search of a livelihood in nearby countries, and refrain from exploitation of children -- after all, a stated government goal and obligation under the ILO conventions Uzbekistan signed in 2009. But the state assigns producers a price and controls agricultural supplies as well -- and in some regions buses the school-children to the fields directly from school.
Children forced to bring in the cotton harvest earn the equivalent of 5 cents a kilo, or at most, $4-5/day, according to reports from the Uzbek German Forum for Human Rights. And they must pay for food and clothing out of those meager wages.
The government of Uzbekistan has made the false claim that groups campaigning for the boycott of Uzbek cotton are somehow stalking horses of Western governments and companies wishing to knock out their competition on the world market. That propagandistic argument will be far harder to make with surging prices. If anything, there is concern about shortages and some US corn farmers are thinking to turn to cotton crops.
Gymboree must end its silence on forced child labor and increased repression in Uzbekistan, says Tim Newman of the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF).
The ILRF has launched a petition at Change.org to call on Gymboree to join other major garment companies in taking a stand against forced child labor in Uzbekistan by publicly opposing the abuse of children in the cotton harvest.
The petition has already gathered 2,800 signatures, but so far, Gymboree has not responded.
When concerned activists posted some photographs of children working in the fields at the Gymboree Facebook fan page, they were swiftly removed by company representatives.
Newman says Gymboree executives are profiting from ignoring the child labor issue in Uzbekistan.
The children's clothing store was recently acquired by a private investment firm, Bain Capital; current and former executives of Bain Capital raked in $49 million in stocks from the deal.
Gymboree began coming to the attention of labor and human rights groups when it failed to join the top global clothing companies in opposing the widespread use of forced child labor in Uzbekistan's cotton industry and pledging to work toward removing Uzbek cotton from their supply chain. Now, Gymboree has been named one of the "Human Trafficking Zeroes" for failing to do anything to stop the problem.
Russia is planning to sign an intergovernmental agreement for direct deliveries of Uzbek cotton fiber, the Russian online news service regnum.ru reported, citing the Uzbek newspaper Novy Vek.
In 2011, Uzbekistan plans to reduce its cotton exports from 880,000 tons, shipped in 2010, down to 750,000 tons, in order to create new production facilties and increase its capacity to produce cotton fiber, which will increase by 100,000 tons to 370,000 tons, said Novy Vek.
Uzbekistan's main cotton purchasers are Bangladesh, China, Russia and Turkey. Farmers harvested 3.2 million tons of raw cotton in 2010, 1.4 percent more than in 2009.
Uzbekistan increased its cotton fiber export in January 2011 by 27.5 percent, and its total foreign trade volume for January increased by 24.9 percent, to $1.4 billion, regnum.ru reported.