Earlier this month, the International Labor Organization (ILO) Committee of Experts published a report of its most recent deliberations, including its review of the child labor situation in Uzbekistan. The Committee cited a consensus of UN bodies, workers' and employers' organizations and NGOs regarding the scope of the child labor problem in Uzbekistan and published a summary of the conclusions from UNICEF's effort to observe the 2011 cotton harvest in Uzbekistan. This was our first chance to see anything of the report, which UNICEF does not make public. According to the Committee, UNICEF concluded that:
"children aged 11–17 years old have been observed working full time in the cotton fields across the country; the mobilization of children has been organized by way of instructions passed through Khokimyats (local administration), whereby farmers are given quotas to meet and children are mobilized by means of the education system in order to help meet these quotas; ... in over a third of the fields visited, children stated that they were not receiving the money themselves; quotas for the amount of cotton children were expected to pick generally ranged between 20–50 kilos per day; the overwhelming majority of children observed were working a full day in the field and as a result, were missing their regular classes; children worked long hours in extremely hot weather; pesticides were used on the cotton crop that children spent hours hand picking; some children reported that they had not been allowed to seek medical attention even though they were sick..."
In light of the consensus about the widespread nature of forced child labor in Uzbekistan, the Committee reported that it "must express its serious concern regarding the [Uzbek] Government’s continued insistence that children are not involved in the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan." The Committee called on the authorities in Tashkent "to take immediate and effective time-bound measures to eradicate the forced labour of, or hazardous work by, children under 18 years in cotton production, as a matter of urgency" and reiterated previous ILO calls for the Uzbek government to accept an ILO monitoring mission during this year's upcoming harvest, calls that Tashkent has consistently rejected in the past.
Last fall the organizers of New York's Fashion Week responded to pressure from members of the cotton campaign and a wave of public criticism by canceling Gulnara Karimova's planned show of her Guli line. The Uzbek dictator's daughter, tagged the "fascista fashionista" by the New York Post, dug in and held her show elsewhere and campaign supporters were there to protest, including Uzbek refugees whose children were actually being forced to pick cotton back home while their fathers walked the picket line.
Unfortunately, not all the fashion world seems to have gotten the message. According to the NY Times, at the recent spring shows in Paris, acclaimed designer Rei Kawakubo showed a line of garments made of fabric from Uzbekistan. Back in the fall, Gulnara's people put out the defense that Guli garments were made of silk not cotton. Maybe that's the case with Kawakubo too. If so, it's a distinction without a difference since, as the Daily Times of Pakistan has pointed out, in Uzbekistan silk is also produced with the abundant use of child labor.
Isn't it about time that the people who seek to set our tastes in fashion realized that their consumers do not want to wear garments produced through the forced labor of children?
Last week, unknown assaialants shot and wounded Obidkhon Qori Nazarov, a popular Uzbek imam who had received political asylum in Sweden after fleeing religious persecution in Uzbekistan. This is just another reminder that forced child labor is only one of the myriad human rights problems in Uzbekistan today. Human Rights Watch's annual report provides a brief but comprehensive analysis of the situation. As far as child labor is concerned, HRW writes that:
"Forced child labor in the cotton fields remains a serious concern. The government took no meaningful steps to implement the two International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions on child labor, which it ratified in March 2008. Despite repeated requests, it continued to refuse ILO access to monitor the harvest.
The government continues to force 1.5 to 2 million schoolchildren as young as nine-years-old to help with the cotton harvest for two months a year. They live in filthy conditions, contract illnesses, miss school, and work daily from early morning until evening for little to no pay. Hunger, exhaustion, and heat stroke are common.
Human Rights Watch is aware of several cases of authorities harassing activists who tried to document forced child labor. In September authorities detained activists Gulshan Karaeva and Nodir Akhatov while they photographed children forced to pick cotton in the Kashkadarya region.
Also in September, responding to concerns from Human Rights Watch and other groups, the organizers of New York Fashion Week cancelled a show by the president’s daughter, Gulnara Karimova, who serves as Uzbekistan’s permanent representative to the UN and its ambassador to Spain....
The Uzbek government continued to refuse to cooperate with international institutions but faced virtually no consequences for this intransigence. It continues to deny access to all eight UN special procedures that have requested invitations, has failed to comply with recommendations made by various expert bodies, and blocks the ILO from sending independent observers to monitor compliance with the prohibition of forced child labor in the cotton industry."