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.