Signing petitions works!
This just in from Change.org --
Children's clothing manufacturer Gymboree is the latest company to take a stand against child labor by refusing to buy cotton from Uzbekistan. Their web announcement of the policy change comes after over 3,000 Change.org members sent in letters asking for the company to stop buying Uzbek cotton. This victory is part of an ongoing series of campaigns asking international clothing brands to stop buying cotton from Uzbekistan, where forced child labor is used to harvest the crop.
Thanks to International Labor Rights Forum for organizing the petition and to everybody who signed.
Gymboree has placed a statement on their corporate website:
"Gymboree prohibits the use of cotton sourced from Uzbekistan and textiles produced using Uzbekistan cotton because of Uzbekistan's history of forced child labor."
A translation of a report from the field from the indefatiguable Elena Urlayeva, a human rights defender based in Tashkent, via Bakhadyr Namazov, a human rights advocate from the Committee for the Release of Prisoners of Conscience in Uzbekistan and an independent journalist, dated May 24, 2011:
Elena reports that she is in Khojeyli district in the Republic of Karakalpakstan, monitoring child labor.
"As I've been monitoring, I have been followed the entire time by unidentified persons in cars, and they are changing cars constantly. At the Dustlik and Akhunbayev farms, I observed that college and school students are laboring in the fields. They are doing the weeding. While the secondary school students are coming to work after their lessons, the college students have been here straight since May 10. The students are from fifth grade and up.
I intend to meet with the khokim (head of the local administration) and express my protest about this."
[Bahadyr Namazov continues]:
We have also observed students from schools and colleges in other districts of Karakalpakstan and almost all the provinces of Uzbekistan doing agricultural work (weeding, sowing, etc.)
There is no information that these students are receiving any monetary compensation. After all, they can always chalk it up for the good of the cause. The Soviet school is alive and well!
Nothing is changing in this regard. Everything remains as it has always been.
Although many have already come out of their Soviet hypnosis (that was their excuse right after the collapse of the Soviet Union), at least they aren't embarrassed to live in luxury at another's expense.
As we heard from Amb. Norov during his recent trip to Germany, the threadbare excuse is still being used that Uzbekistan is still suffering from its Soviet legacy of exploiting children in the cotton industry, nearly 20 years after the collapse of the USSR.
Vladimir Norov, Uzbekistan's first deputy foreign minister, faced some significant heat on his country's poor human rights record during meetings this week in Berlin.
And apparently Germany also felt the heat, because Berlin stepped up with more public statements on human rights as a result, according to BBC's Uzbek Service. This could possibly signal a shift in Germany's policy of tending to keep such conversations to quiet diplomacy, given its friendly relations with Tashkent.
Human Rights Watch and the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights urged German officials to raise with Norov concerns about political prisoners, torture, and forced child labor in the cotton industry. Tashkent has benefited greatly from Germany's multi-million euro payments to use the military base at Termez in connection with the war in Afghanistan, as well as other German trade, although the relationship has sometimes been rocky.
Yesterday, Umida Niyazova, head of the Uzbek-German Forum and a campaigner against forced child labor in Uzbekistan, met with Markus Löning, the Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Aid at Germany ’s Federal Foreign Office.
Niyazova told Choihona that Löning informed her that he will keep raising the issue of forced labor in Uzbekistan, and believes that greater progress could be obtained on that issue than on more "political" issues such as the release of human rights defenders from prison.
Löning told Niyazova that during his meeting with Norov, he raised specific issues, such as Tashkent's failure to respond to the request of the International Labor Organization (ILO) to send a fact-finding mission to Uzbekistan, as well as to requests from various UN special rapporteurs. Löning began speaking out on the problem of child labor in Uzbekistan last November.
Unfortunately, Löning did not get any concrete answers to these requests, says Niyazova. Norov reportedly spoke in generalities, making reference to Uzbekistan's difficult Soviet past, and saying that it was impossible to demand that all countries build a democracy of the Western sort.
The issue isn't Western models, however, but universal principles that Tashkent itself has endorsed when it ratified ILO conventions and the UN Convention Against Torture.
Originally posted on EurasiaNet.org.
Kyrgyz border guards halted a cotton smuggler coming out of Uzbekistan on May 24, ca-news.org reported May 25, citing a statement from the Kyrgyz Committee for National Security.
Kyrgyz authorities report that on on the evening of May 24 at the Alga border crossing near the Aydarken border post, borders guards along with local security officials from the Kadamjai district and the customs service halted some smugglers attempting to bring 1,900 tons of cotton from Uzbekistan into Kyrgyzstan.
The contrabandists were driving two Hyundai Porter pick-up trucks. One of the smugglers who was without identification was arrested, and was turned over along with the truck-loads of cotton to security officials.
The incident is indicative of just how valued -- and expensive -- cotton is this season, with the sharp increase in world prices.
Since the pogroms in Kyrgyzstan a year ago in June, the border has been closed. In the past, trade was brisk from Uzbekistan in fruits and vegetables, that sold for a lower price in Kyrgyzstan. Meanwhile, Kyrgyz would sell Chinese manufactured goods, in demand in Uzbekistan.
Since that time, as Kyrgyz officials have pointed out, the closed border has not only harmed the economy but only fostered the growth of criminals, 24.kg reports.
Umida Niyazova, an Uzbek emigre who founded the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, is a leading child rights advocate campaigning against the use of forced child labor in her homeland.
In a recent interview with cottoncampaign.org, she shared her reflections on the past harvest in the fall of 2010, and what we might expect this year.
1. What are the main lessons learned from the cotton harvest 2010 that we should take into account for 2011 regarding strategy?
I wouldn't say that there was something especially different in the cotton campaign of 2010 that distinguished it from previous years. The method for mobilizing school children and college students to harvest the cotton remained unchanged. In 2010, on the average, the school children and college students were sent to the fields in mid-September until mid-October (in some provinces, until the end of October). They spent about two or two-and-a-half months in the fields.
What I could note, however, is that with each passing year, it is becoming more and more difficult to conduct research, because the authorities want to employ all their efforts to conceal information. For example, school children are forced to work in fields which are located further away from the main highways, so that they are not visible. Teachers are warned to report any strangers who show up at the fields.
In general, in devising a strategy against child labor in Uzbekistan, you likely have to take into account that the people who gain an enormous person profit from cotton are in fact high-ranking officials, who could change the situation very quickly -- but only if they really wanted to do so. These officials have their own strategy. They are masters of bluffing and can easily deny what is obvious without batting an eye. They can go through all the ritualistic activities possible that would seemingly change the situation. That means passing various laws in parliament, or presidential decrees, or instructions from the government, or the passing of a special "yearly plan" to eradicate child labor; they can create a commission to monitor these laws and can ratify the ILO conventions. They can do this endlessly. On the surface, it seems as if there are some sort of positive actions being taken, but in fact, we're running in place.
2. Will the harvest be shorter or longer this year?
In 2010 (by contrast to 2009), the harvest period was shorter. (In 2009, it lasted until December.) This is most likely due to the fact that from the very beginning, there was an imperative to harvest the cotton as quickly as possible, before the rains came. And it is also related, I think, to the increasing attention from the press and human rights organizations to the problem of child labor.
3. What effect will the huge raise in prices have on developments in forced child labor?
The sharp increase in the price of cotton has already had an effect on farmers this year. From all indications, the authorities are trying to extract the last drop of resources out of the farmers' holdings, so that they can get as much cotton as possible. According to reports coming in, local government officials are forcing farmers to plant cotton over their entire land, every bit that they have. That is, sometimes farmers have been allowed unofficially to plant vegetables or fruits on 5-10 percent of their leased land. From that, they can get a profit from sales. But judging from the situation today, farmers are being forced to plow all their lands for crops and plant
It's hard to expect that the situation could improve for forced cotton pickers. This concerns both adults and children who are most likely going to be forced to go out to the fields in mid-September.
4. Are children involved in weeding and the sowing of cotton in the spring?
In the spring, in some provinces, school-children must help with the cultivation of cotton. Sometimes they are sent to work after school; sometimes instead of school. But this does not occur on such a large scale as in the harvesting of cotton. There was a recent report on this on uznews.net.
5. Last year, human rights activists reported more police and army guarding the fields and preventing observers. Will this likely repeat?
I am certain that this year there will be the same kind of control (if not more) over the cotton fields. The government in Uzbekistan understands the power of information; therefore it has closed the offices or bureaus of all independent international media, all the foreign human rights NGOs; the Human Rights Watch office was closed just recently.
"No information -- no problem" -- that's the motto of the current Uzbek government. Therefore, naturally, the authorities will do the maximum to make it difficult to access the cotton fields and document the situation.
6. The government has formed a new working group supposedly to monitor labor conditions. Will this group function? Will it travel to the cotton fields?
So far, the concrete "work plan" of this monitoring group has not been announced. But as I noted above, this is no more than the latest ritual games. I do not think that it is worth ascribing any meaning to a monitoring group that consists of officials from ministries, and which does not have a single independent person in it whose words could be trusted.
7. Have you heard any indication that the Uzbek government will permit the ILO to monitor conditions in the cotton industry in Uzbekistan?
As far as is known, Uzbekistan will not let the ILO group in this year.
The Jamestown Foundation Eurasia Daily Monitor has published a disturbing two-part article by Umida Hashimova, "US Repeats Policy Mistakes in Uzbekistan," on the issue of forced child labor in Uzbekistan. The author, originally from Uzbekistan herself, claims the issue of child labor in her homeland is misrepresented and exaggerated, and implies that those who take up the cause do so for politicized motives. Ultimately, she suggests that protesting about this practice to the Uzbek government will only harm US-Uzbek relations and America's strategic interests in the region.
Yet her argumentation, while methodical, leaves out the obvious counterpoint – not only has the Uzbek government made an international commitment to end forced child labor, the International Labor Organization is rightly calling Tashkent to account as NGOs and international agencies continue to document the use of children in the cotton harvest.
Hashimova's argumentation references UN treaties and international norms to make a development-based but ultimately disingenuous argument that because Uzbekistan has higher literacy, better economic indicators, and more cases of prosecution of trafficking than its neighbors, it should not be targeted for censure for its failure to comply with International Labor Organization's (ILO) conventions -- conventions which Uzbekistan has signed and ratified, and claims it is in the process of fulfilling. Recently, in fact, the government created a new inter-agency task force to monitor the issue, a move greeted with skepticism by activists but which indicates that the regime is going through the motions of compliance rather than outright rejection of the principles at stake.
The articles appear to have been sparked by the position that the U.S. government has taken through the US government's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, known as G-TIP. G-TIP publishes a comprehensive report on trafficking in 175 countries each year, and has been critical of Uzbekistan, placing it in the category of "tier 2," countries needing improvement.
Hashimova objects to the inclusion of forced child labor in the list of G-TIP, which was established to implement the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol, on the grounds that ostensibly the UN treaty would apply only to forcibly taking persons across state borders.
Yet as the G-TIP web page explains, for the last 15 years, "“trafficking in persons” and “human trafficking” have been "used as umbrella terms for activities involved when someone obtains or holds a person in compelled service" – regardless if they are transported.
Hashimova makes a literalist and abstract interpretation of the UN treaty, yet in fact, as the treaty is applied by states as well as UNODC, the notion of human trafficking does not require transport of persons but merely "acquisition of people by improper means such as force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them."
She also cites the absence of any statement from UNICEF or UNDP on the issue of child labor as a form of trafficking per se as somehow evidence that it does not constitute such an offense. In fact, UNICEF has recently begun to break a long-standing silence on the issue, admitting that its methodology for examining the problem had been incomplete. It’s also well known that the UN agencies operating in Central Asia tend to mute their criticism of the autocratic regimes of their host countries to ensure they continue to maintain a presence there and at least complete some helpful projects.
WHY SINGLE OUT UZBEKISTAN?
Hashimova is not only concerned about definitional issues, however, but attacks the US government as well as non-governmental campaigns against child labor in Uzbekistan as unbalanced and unfair. Uzbekistan has "been doing much more than its neighbors," she says, to investigate and prosecute sex-trafficking and the abuse of labor migrants.”
In reality, Uzbekistan's record is far from perfect and its means of combating sex trafficking extremely harsh. Since January 2011, for example, unmarried women under 35 are being denied exit visas from Uzbekistan unless they can produce parental consent and numerous other references, on the suspicion that they may engage in prostitution, uznews.net reported.
Hashimov also objects to what she sees as a selective approach by civil society protesters against forced child labor. Uzbekistan's neighbors, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, also have issues with forced labor in their cotton harvests, but have not been singled out by NGO campaigns. India, Pakistan or China have child labor problems, too. Why don't activists work on those countries?
THE CULTURAL EXCUSE
Another argument is that work for children is customary in Uzbekistan and seen by the community as good for children. "The involvement of children in labor has a cultural aspect, which was promoted once the collectivization process started in the Soviet era. Children were encouraged to help their farmer parents and relatives in cotton, corn, vegetable or other fields,” she writes.
But child labor is only beneficial if the work comes after school and is not coerced, or taking place in terrible conditions. The ample documentation of children in the harvest illustrates that it is not children in farm families, but the children of parents who are employed outside of agriculture in other sectors who are coerced to pick cotton. The students are bused by school or government officials, and teachers, doctors, soldiers and other workers are also pressed into service by the state in public drives for the harvest.
Interestingly, a statement made by a UNICEF official at a recent panel discussion was that cotton-picking is not good for children -- they are exposed to toxic pesticides and harsh and debilitating working conditions.
Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State in the Clinton Administration, used to have two sayings that she would invoke when these kinds of arguments were made. The first was, “It’s not cultural, it’s criminal” – in endless disputes about whether violence against women was tolerable for cultural reasons. The same notion applies to forced child labor. Albright’s other saying was, “Just because you can't act everywhere doesn't mean you don't act anywhere.”
LABOR RIGHTS ARE UNIVERSAL
Unions and human rights groups certainly recognize the universality of labor and human rights, affirm them everywhere, and work where they can be effective. In that respect, NGO work on the child labor issue in Uzbekistan because of a confluence of factors -- there are groups working on the issue inside the country who ask for solidarity, and who can get information out; the problem is also well-documented and widespread. Other Central Asian countries like Turkmenistan may have the same kind of problems with forced child labor, but it is difficult to get the information and NGO activity is virtual destroyed. Most notably, groups work on Uzbekistan because Tashkent itself has made a highly-publicized commitment to abide by the ILO's conventions. That doesn't mean that the NGOs don't care about India, Pakistan or China -- indeed there are human rights groups actively campaigning against forced labor and for children’s rights in those countries.
Hashimova's least persuasive argument is that the campaign against forced labor was somehow cooked up because Western companies need to compete with the Uzbek cotton industry, and needed to find a way to put it out of business. She contradicts herself by also claiming, as the Uzbek government does, that it is reducing the share of the cotton industry in the national economy. More to the point, her argument is completely undermined these days by the high price of raw cotton on the exchanges, and the shortages that clothing and sportswear companies are already announcing that will dictate a rise in consumer prices.
Another rather stretched argument also relates to the Soviet legacy. Hashimova says because Uzbekistan was subjugated by Russia in the Soviet Union and essentially "transformed into the Russian Empire's principal cotton colony," with "substantial level of social security despite the wage levels" the present system is somehow acceptable. Yet Uzbekistan is hardly subdued by Russia now, which is among its largest customers for the cotton, and the "social security" of private farmers is a chimera – recently, even harsher laws were passed to make the state-controlled agricultural sector even more oppressive for farmers, who have to accept fixed prices and whose farms can be seized if they are viewed as producing below an assessed quota. Uzbeks since independence have hardly chosen the brutal Soviet collectivization model for their society, yet the real transition to private farming has not authentically been made by the state.
G-TIP'S WATCH LIST
What Hashimova is most concerned about, however, is the affect the US sanction of Uzbekistan through G-TIP could mean for their overall relationship. G-TIP recently released an interim assessment of the countries on the Tier 2 "Special Watch List," which included Uzbekistan, and because of continued non-compliance could be in danger of a downgrading to tier 3, which could impact assistance, says Hashimova:
The importance of the NDN to the Afghanistan war effort cannot be overstated given the constant interdiction of supplies through Pakistan by the Taliban and its Pakistani supporters in recent years. However, this fragile US-Uzbek relationship appears to be on the verge of possible collapse due to arcane and illogical actions by the State Department Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (G-TIP).
Yet as Hashimova herself notes, the State Department is likely to issue a waiver due to the need to cooperate with Uzbekistan. And at the end of the day, G-TIP is just doing its job under US law. The use of forced child labor is not just a cultural heritage, it is a violation of US law, part of US policy about international relations in keeping with UN treaty obligations, and most importantly, incorporated into Uzbek national law and international commitments – a fact UNICEF recognizes certainly when it devises programs with the Uzbek government to mitigate child labor.
Hashimova, who is described as an independent scholar, is a graduate of the University of Essex with a masters in human rights, and listed at the Eurasia Center of the Atlantic Council. She has held positions in Amnesty International's Asia Advocacy Program and worked for UNDP in Tashkent and also for UNODC as a researcher. So she is grounded in human rights law and practice and experienced with the UN. Yet in these two articles, she has failed to state the obvious about Uzbekistan's human rights violations or even to mention the term "human rights" at all.
Instead, she echoes the rhetoric the Uzbek government has used about the US government purportedly “taking up the cause of a number of anti-Uzbekistan NGOs and possibly competing cotton exporters to vilify Uzbekistan."
Yet the revolutions in the Middle East have prompted US policy-makers to contemplate more deeply the human rights values the US professes and the stark consequences of failing to uphold them abroad in the long run. Uzbekistan stands to gain as much from the US in terms of trade and security as Washington seeks from the relationship with Tashkent – there is no need to foreclose the future of Uzbek children, depriving them of schooling and subjecting them to harsh work in a state-controlled industry that benefits only the ruling families and their associates. Most importantly, Tashkent itself now professes the letter of the labor law if not the spirit, and there is no reason why both NGOs and foreign governments cannot call Uzbekistan to account.
Gymboree, the children's clothing retailer, has blocked critics from its Facebook page who have been trying to get the company's attention about the sourcing of cotton from Uzbekistan, which is produced through the exploitation of child labor, the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) reports.
ILRF has called attention to Gymboree in the past, urging the company to break its silence about the Uzbek cotton issue and leading a petition calling on Gymboree and Abercrombie to stop forced labor.
In an article on change.org, Tim Newman of ILRF says Gymboree has blocked his organization's critical comments from the corporate Facebook page. Other users have reported that their comments were also erased.
ILRF calls for supporters to email the company or go to the Gymboree Facebook Wall and ask them to "stop the censorship and start speaking out against forced child labor in the cotton industry."
Meanwhile, it seems that the active campaigning by ILHR and other groups concerned about forced child labor in Uzbekistan may be starting to have some effect on Gymboree.
Apparently Gymboree has just updated its corporate responsibility page with a statement about Uzbekistan added to the paragraph containing the company's policy barring child labor from its factories:
Gymboree prohibits the use of cotton sourced from Uzbekistan and textiles produced using Uzbekistan cotton because of Uzbekistan's history of forced child labor.
Activists are now researching this new statement to see exactly what the policy is and how it is being implemented and monitored.
Gymboree's policy also says it will not do business with suppliers found to use cotton produced by forced child labor, who fail to take corrective measures.
Students in the Jizzak region of Uzbekistan in preparation for the sowing of cotton, the independent website uznews.net reported.
Teenagers of 15 and 16 years of age were told they had to help do the weeding to help maximize this year's crop, to come at a time of record highs of the price of cotton.
Cotton surged to $2/lb in February and has now fallen to a still-high rate of $1.45-$1.50/lb as farmers are expected to put more cropland under cotton.
Although Uzbekistan signed and ratified the International Labor Convention banning the worst forms of child labor, the practice of enlisting children into cotton fieldwork persists.
A local teacher told uznews.net that the children were prevented from studying for their exams by being forced to pick weeds. Says the Uzbek reporters:
Sources claim that Jizak Regional education department was involved in sending high school pupils to the cotton fields. The campaign is no surprise to many activists trying to end the Uzbek government’s reliance on forced child labor, to maximize its yields from cotton growing and exports each year.
Uzbekistan has not issued an invitation to the ILO to inspect farms during the cotton harvest.