The Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament voted unanimously against the inclusion of textiles in the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA), the pact that has governed EU-Uzbek trade since 1999. The vote prevented a lowering of tariffs on EU imports of Uzbek cotton, which make up at least 25 percent of Uzbekistan's exports.
The language of the legislation now stipulates that the inclusion of textiles "should only be put to the vote by Parliament after international observers, and in particular the International Labor Organization (ILO), have been granted by the Uzbek authorities close and unhindered monitoring."
The Uzbek government has failed to invite the ILO to inspect cotton fields during the harvest season, despite calls from employers and unions at the ILO annual meeting as well as from the International Labor Rights Forum and other groups.
In February, the European Council approved an amendment to the PCA, extending the customs and tariffs breaks to Tashkent. But the European Parliament had yet to approve it, and it still had to go through committees.
EU members of parliament became concerned about increasing reports of the exploitation of children in the cotton harvest. A coalition of international labor and human rights organizations, joined with Uzbek human rights groups working both inside the country and in exile, have been advocating for some years with MEPs to try to stop forced child labor, especially after Uzbekistan ratified the ILO convention against the worst forms of child labor in 2009.
In June, the EU Parliament held a hearing on the issue and heard testimony from Anti-Slavery International, and other NGOs campaigning against forced labor.
Joanna Ewart-James, Supply Chain Program Coordinator at Anti-Slavery International testified:
Ninety percent of Uzbek cotton is picked by hand, with almost half being picked by state-sponsored forced child labor. Uzbekistan is not a country with which we should be doing business and clearly not with the cotton and related sectors.
Nicole Kiil-Nielsen, a French MEP, asked on her blog why the agreement should be signed, when Tashkent wouldn't allow the ILO to monitor the cotton harvest. Liam Aylward, an Irish MEP also issued a press release on the issue, and Catherine Bearder and Leonidas Donskis, MEPs from England and Lithuania respectively, lodged queries with the European Commission.
The European Parliament's International Trade Committee must next vote on the measure on November 22, and the PCA is expected to come to a plenary vote in December.
On October 3, MEP Paul Murphy, a member of the Socialist Party/United Left Alliance from Ireland, member of the Europarliament's International Trade Committee, organized a panel on Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Nadejda Atayeva of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, who regularly monitors forced labor in Uzbekistan, was invited to testify. A number of MEPs pledged their support for blocking Uzbek textile imports, including Hannes Swoboda, vice president of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, Foreign Affairs Committee member and member of EU-Uzbekistan Parliamentary Cooperation Committee and Norica Nicolai of the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, who is vice chair of the Subcommittee on Security and Defence, and also a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Uzbekistan has generally denied that it uses young children in the harvest, although monitors this season have found children as young as 10 in the 4th and 5th grades sent to work in the fields.
ILO signatories can allow children 15 years or older to work after school, and children of 14 years under certain conditions. But unlikely other countries where agricultural work occurs in a family farm context, in Uzbekistan, local administrators remove students from middle school through college from classes, and then bus them to the cotton fields under threat of penalties for themselves and their families. In the state-controlled agricultural sector, even nominally private farmers must meet quotas and accept fixed prices for their produce.
UNICEF has been permitted by the Uzbek government to make some limited observation of the cotton harvest, but has cautioned that this is not a substitute for the kind of thorough monitoring that the ILO could do of labor practices.
This story first appeared on EurasiaNet's Choihona blog.