On May 13th 2009, As You Sow, Boston Common Asset Management, Calvert Group , CREA, and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility hosted a meeting highlighting key environmental and social risks associated with cotton production and steps organizations can take to help eliminate the use of child labor in cotton production in Uzbekistan.
The all-day meeting was conducted under Chatham House rules, so the identities of the participants and their comments can't be divulged. On the program, though, were Gap, Levi-Strauss, and Target and some of the largest apparel makers in the U.S. The response was strong, and the participants noteworthy. A similar session has been held in San Francisco and one will be taking place shortly in London, where representatives of other leading apparel manufacturers and retailers, as well as investors, will no doubt also attend. Private consumer-facing business continues to take on the message.
A morning briefing by NGOs was followed by afternoon brainstorming sessions on on using diplomatic channels to press for change, ramping up corporate efforts, and influencing the cotton merchants--the non consumer-facing end of the supply chain that is harder to reach.
If the assembled companies, lobbyists and investors took away anything from the meeting, I hope it was a sense of confidence that bold action is the right path here. The introductory session did a great job of demolishing the five myths that have been trotted out (and too often, taken on faith) by those with a vested interest in the status quo:
Myth #1) Child labor is an Uzbek tradition. This is clearly disproved by literature and anecdotal accounts.
Myth #2) Boycotts will hurt children. Child laborers and their families do not benefit in any event from revenues derived from cotton exports (a portion of which, at best, disappears into the black hole that is the state budget, and the rest of which are skimmed off by...?). It was noted that this fallacy has been forwarded by UNICEF, as stated by its representatives at the first Multi-Stakeholder Initiative meeting.
Myth #3) More studies are needed. Credible studies already exist which outline scope of problems and abuses. What is needed is access to cotton sector by independent researchers to monitor what is really going on in the fields (as opposed to what the Government of Uzbekistan says is going on).
Myth #4) Dialogue with the Uzbek government constitutes progress. While talks and acknowledgment of the problems are necessary, talks alone should not be misconstrued as a sufficient demonstration of intent to end use of forced child labor. Uzbekistan's modus operandi, saying "yes, yes" while continuing whatever abhorrent practice is under discussion, shouldn't be a surprise for anyone.
Myth #5) Technical cooperation can always help. Existing technical projects with the GoU have been manipulated and Uzbek nationals associated with such efforts face debilitating pressures.