Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe's Uzbek service (Radio Ozodlik) reported a week or so ago that schoolchildren in some areas of the Fergana Valley were being sent home with paper cones and seeds and told to grow 200 seedlings in their gardens for cotton farmers to plant later in the season. Just a homework assignment, right? That initial report has been expanded into a roundup of the current state of child labor and efforts against it, available here:
The article makes plain the economic calculus driving the exploitation of children:
Uzbek farmers say the answer is simple: Child labor is preferred because it's cheap. Children receive as little as $.03 for every kilogram of cotton they pick.
Ferghana-based rights activist Bahodir Elboev says the pay is so low that it cannot compare to the money adult men can earn working as seasonal laborers abroad.
"If a grown-up man works casual jobs he makes at least $6-7 a day and can earn some $200 a month," Elboev says. "Farmers never pay anyone $200 a month!"
If the state can underpay farmers rates that don't allow the hiring of wage laborers at market rates, and instead, coerce children to do the work for pennies per day, what can force them to stop, short of an all-out boycott?
The UK's The Guardian reports on an upcoming conference by the Ethical Trade Initiative and sponsored by Tesco, the major UK retailer which was the first to boycott Uzbek cotton: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/may/24/retail-ethicalbusiness
Tesco has been a pioneer in policing its supply chain to ensure that there is no Uzbek cotton in it.
The Guardian explains:
"Until recently that was not easy because most cotton garments are blended from a number of different countries and it was hard to work out where cotton was sourced. But new technology developed by Oxford-based firm Historic Futures now offers retailers the ability to track and trace all items that make up a garment. By uploading receipts on individual components within entire supply chains onto a secure network, retailers can accurately trace where their products come from."
Steve Trent of the Environmental Justice Foundation is quoted on Uzbekistan's signing of the ILO conventions 182 and 138:
"This is a major step forward. Virtually nothing persuaded the government to change course. But the actions of retailers and campaigners are definitely now having an impact. But the key question that remains is whether the Uzbeki government will implement the conventions. They need to allow independent monitoring and work with civil society, which are basic requirements of the conventions they have signed up to and ratified. They are not doing this so the jury is out."
The article concludes by contrasting the situation with corporations' action on Uzbekistan (relatively favorable) with that of Burma, where the London insurance market's involvement in Burma's shipping industry allows the junta to keep afloat. It glosses over the fact that Uzbekistan's cotton is still sold (to Russia, China, Bangladeshi spinning industries), and is still a big earner for the regime...for now!
On April 2, Senator Tom Harkin (Democrat of Iowa) submitted a "sense of the Senate" resolution. The action point:
Resolved, That it is the sense of the Senate that the Government of Uzbekistan should--
(1) immediately enforce its existing domestic legislation and fulfill its international commitments aimed at ending state-sponsored forced and child labor;
(2) allow a comprehensive independent investigation into forced and child labor in the cotton sector during the fall 2009 harvest season by the International Labour Organization;
(3) in consultation and cooperation with the International Labour Organization, develop a credible and comprehensive action plan based on the findings of the International Labour Organization and commit the resources necessary to end forced and child labor in the cotton sector; and
(4) take concrete steps towards systemic reform that will--
(A) ensure greater freedom and better returns from their labor for cotton-producing farmers; and
(B) enable such farmers to employ adults in the cotton sector.
Let's hope the Senate takes it up for a vote in the upcoming session. The administration may be cultivating "improved relations" with Uzbekistan, but that shouldn't come at the expense of children's (or anyone's) rights.
Read the whole text of the resolution here: http://www.govtrack.us/congress/billtext.xpd?bill=sr111-99
Freedom House is distributing a report compiled by a group of Uzbekistani human rights defenders reviewing the country's human rights record in the last year. Disturbingly, the authors elected to remain anonymous so as not to risk repercussions. The climate for honest reporting and analysis continues to worsen, evidently.
The report's main conclusion: the government is talking more, passing more good-looking laws, and its message is getting more polished. But its citizens are experiencing just as many abuses, and when they do, they have no more (or even less) recourse than before. In discussions of the introduction of habeas corpus, the death penalty abolition, and bar association "reform," the authors found identical trends.
One of the report's sections deals with the cotton harvest, and it makes for disturbing reading. It describes at least seven deaths, and children as young as six forced out to the fields. Children who were absent were fined (as much as $2.00/day!) as were those who didn't meet their daily quotas. The report doesn't say in which provinces or districts these conditions were prevalent, but whereever they occured, the results for children are bad.
Read the report here: http://www.freedomhouse.org/uploads/features/HumanRights2008Review.pdf
Starting on May 17, children in the Khorezm province's Yangibozor district have been sent out to weed and work in the cotton fields. The district's schoolchildren from 6th to 9th grades (12-15 years old) are taking part. Presumably this means lycee level high school students are also out. One sixth grade girl interviewed in the fields related that the work day begins at 8 in the morning until dusk. The children have been promised they will be back in school after a week. Others report that children down to the fifth grade have been observed working at the behest of their schools; some are in school for a partial day and then sent out after a morning lesson.
The Radio Liberty Uzbek service reporter interviewed the Khorezm provincial education department deputy director, Kuronboi Tojiev, who denied children were being sent out to work. He claimed that they might be found in the fields after school helping their parents...sound familiar?
Why is the UK historically so out in front on social justice issues? From the anti-slavery crusade, to anti-vivisectionists, and now for ethical consumption. Bad conscience, maybe?
On Tuesday June 9 at 7pm the Environmental Justice Foundation and Anti-SlaveryInternational will be hosting a "What Not to Wear" presentation at Amnesty International's events space at Shoreditch, London. You can register for the event here: http://www.amnesty.org.uk/events.asp?
TUESDAY 9 JUNE 2009 AT 7PM
At Amnesty International UK, The Human Rights Action Centre, 17-25 New Inn Yard, London EC2A 3EA
Uzbekistan is the third biggest exporter of cotton in the world. Its booming cotton industry generates over US$1billion annually, but the industry, which largely supplies the European market, is underpinned by a system of state-sponsored forced labour, particularly of children. Schools are closed down for the duration of the cotton harvest and children, some as young as 10 years old, are sent to the fields to pick cotton by hand for little or no pay. Students who fail to meet their targets or refuse to work are reportedly punished with detentions and beatings or can face expulsion from school. Human rights groups estimate that up to 200,000 children are involved each year. This discussion will focus on what can be done to end the use of forced labour in the cotton industry. Considering the action taken by some retailers to ban Uzbek cotton from their products, why do other retailers continue to use it? How can we as consumers ensure that the products we buy are free from slave labour and that we are not inadvertently contributing to the problem?
The short film White Gold made by the Environmental Justice Foundation will also be screened.
Lucy Siegle, journalist, author and presenter (chair)
Joana Ewart-James, Anti-Slavery International
Juliette Williams, The Environmental Justice Foundation
Steve Grinter, International Textile, Garment & Leather Workers’ Federation
Booking at www.amnesty.org.uk/events Admission free
On May 13, Freedom House and Human Rights Watch organized a commemoration of the Andijan massacre, when Uzbekistan's government forces gunned down hundreds of peaceful protestors on the Fergana Valley city's main square on that date in 2005. Senator McCain spoke and his remarks can be read here: http://www.freedomhouse.org/uploads/features/Andijan_Commemoration_Speech_5-11-09.pdf He urged the new administration to be on the right side of history, and not to ignore human rights concerns in order to ramp up military cooperation with Uzbekistan.
Audience members posed questions about forced child labor on Uzbekistan's cotton harvest (answered unfortunately after the Senator had left), which an unnamed State Department official took up. The condensed version: it's a tough problem but we're working on it (talking about it behind the scenes with Uzbek officials, etc.). Not exactly comforting. State's view of the problem's root cause also shows either naievete or excessive diplomacy, perhaps, as it holds that local officials are in the driver's seat. Our diplomat even suggested that President Karimov has told his officials that child labor "is not allowed," but that those pesky local satraps are just sneaking around behind the big guy's back. Fantasies of the good tsar and the evil boyars seem to persist in the face of all contrary evidence.
State should be given credit for the work it is doing to link the U.S. socially responsible investor and corporate communties with Uzbekistan's government, to make sure that their concerns are heard and taken seriously. But it doesn't help matters when it makes suggestions like educating teachers about the evils of child labor--the same teachers whose jobs are threatened by principals and education officials up the line if they don't dragoon their pupils, presumably? The ones who are themselves forced to spend weeks at a time out in the fields harassing eleven year olds to pick their daily 100 lbs? This is reminiscent of the tag line on the subject in this year's State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: " Enforcement was lacking due in part to long-standing societal acceptance of child labor as a method of cotton harvesting." Social acceptance, indeed.
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.