“Syria, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan may become increasingly important apparel sourcing countries in coming years once ongoing issues around political and human rights have been resolved,” reported Just Style this week. Amidst such speculation, companies should accelerate efforts to ensure that cotton from Uzbekistan does not enter their supply chain while the state-sponsored forced labor system continues.
The Just Style article notes a natural competitive advantage that Uzbekistan and other cotton-producing countries have to deliver cotton products despite floods or droughts. However, any consideration of business with Uzbek cotton should carefully consider remarks of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, delivered along with the release of the annual Trafficking in Persons report,
“Modern slavery – be it bonded labor, involuntary servitude, or sexual slavery – is a crime and cannot be tolerated in any culture, community, or country … [It] is an affront to our values and our commitment to human rights.”
According to reports from Uzbek civil-society organizations, the Uzbek government forced labor system of cotton production continued unabated in 2011, and recently announced quotas for 2012 are expected to demand even more from the children and adults forced to work the cotton fields. Far from resolving the issue, the Uzbek government consistently denies the existence of forced labor and silences, sometimes violently, citizen monitors. In 2011, Uzbek authorities arbitrarily detained rights activists - Elena Urlaeva, Gulshan Karaeva, and Nodir Akhatov - while they were photographing and interviewing Uzbek school children forced to pick cotton, fired the Fergana provincial governor after he attempted to establish and implement systematic monitoring of the harvest, and fired and threatened criminal prosecution against schoolteacher Ziyadullo Rizzakov after he protested the mobilization of his students to pick cotton.
Over 60 major apparel companies have publicly signed a pledge calling for the end of forced labor in the Uzbek cotton sector. All companies in the apparel industry should take note that business with Uzbek cotton associates the brand with modern slavery and recognize their unique opportunity to support human rights with purchasing practices. By signing the pledge and are ensuring that Uzbek cotton is not used in their supply chain, companies in all parts of the apparel industry send a message to the Uzbek government that the future of cotton-based industries depends on the end of forced labor in the Uzbek cotton sector.
This week UNICEF reflected on the continued failure of the government of Uzbekistan to end its forced labor system, stating that “the opportunity for change which we had initially identified appears to be no longer available”, and repeated their call for the Government of Uzbekistan to accept monitoring by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
Whether the Uzbek government accepts ILO monitors depends significantly on whether the governments of the United States, the European Union, EU member states and governments around the world send a clear message to the government of Uzbekistan that diplomatic and economic relations depend on their accepting the ILO to conduct unfettered monitoring during the 2012 harvest. The message to the Uzbek government must be immediate. As explained in this memo on the Uzbekistan case before the ILO, July is the deadline for the Uzbek government to accept monitoring if it is to take place this year.
UNICEF’s frustration with the Uzbek government highlights the need for governments to step up and use their stronger points of leverage, including economic and diplomatic, to press the Uzbek government to change its force labor cotton system. The Uzbek government’s tight control over all aspects of the cotton sector is a unique situation that makes any threat of economic sanctions a precise pressure on the Uzbek government to change their policy. It is only the Uzbek government that benefits from its cotton sector. Under the state-controlled cotton system, farmers are legally obligated to deliver cotton to the government-owned gin and receive merely one-third of its value. Meanwhile, the government controls farm inputs, legally denies farmers the opportunity to grow and sell crops of their choosing, and receives over 11% of its export earnings by selling cotton at high market prices and saving on production costs by controlling farmers and the use of forced adult and child labor for harvesting.
Constituencies of the U.S. and EU governments - including apparel brands and retailers, NGOs, socially responsible investors, trade associations and labor unions- have remained united and repeatedly called on governments to urge Uzbekistan to accept ILO monitoring. This is not a drastic measure; monitoring is only a first step, and technical assistance monitoring by the ILO, while a hopeful sign, is not even the tripartite monitoring called for by the ILO Supervisory body. However, if monitoring by the ILO does not occur in 2012, the systematic exploitation of farmers, adults and children by the Uzbek government for cotton production is certain to continue. The cotton quotas for 2012 have been approved, and all reports forecast an increased use of forced labor to meet them.
Now, before the July deadline, all government should insist to the government of Uzbekistan to accept ILO to conduct unfettered monitoring throughout the cotton harvest and with the active participation of civil society.
In cynical disconnect with today’s World Day Against Child Labor, the President of Uzbekistan approved production quotas for the 2012 cotton harvest that ensure another year of widespread forced adult labor and forced child labor.
Every year the government of Uzbekistan forcibly mobilizes over a million children, teachers, public servants and employees of private businesses for the manual harvesting of cotton. Once again in 2011, the government of Uzbekistan fully implemented its state-controlled forced labour system for cotton production. As in previous years, the Uzbek government required farmers to grow cotton, and local provincial government offices (khokimiyats) forcibly mobilised adults and children to plant, weed and harvest to meet assigned quotas. Government employees, teachers, factory workers and doctors are also forced to participate in the harvest alongside children, with no additional compensation and under threat of punishment.
In 2011, the government achieved its cotton quotas by forcing more teachers, public servants and employees of private businesses forced to take “voluntary vacations” and pick cotton for no additional compensation. In addition to the government employees, the Uzbek government also ordered private firms and private business shops to send their employees to pick cotton. For the first time in many years the government sent university students from Tashkent city to the cotton fields.
The trend of increased forced adult labor should alarm governments and companies around the world. Doing business with Uzbek cotton support forced labor and the worst forms of child labor. Preferential trade relations support the Uzbek government's continuous and systematic violations of the rights of Uzbek people and its commitments under international labor conventions against forced labor and the worst forms of child labor.
On this World Day Against Child Labor, the message should be loud and clear to the Uzbek government to grant access to the International Labour Organisation to conduct unfettered monitoring of the 2012 cotton harvest. In Uzbekistan’s cotton sector, ending the government system of forced labor is the first step to ending the worst forms of child labor.
The newly published From the field: Travels of Uzbek Cotton Through the Value Chain paper authored by Valentina Gurney, cotton program manager at the Responsible Sourcing Network, and Patricia Jurewicz, the RSN director and Alina Shlyapochnik, as contributing editors, presents a first part of a set of learning tools the RSN is developing for brands that want to know more about the production and characteristics of Uzbek cotton. “From the field” discusses all of the channels cotton typically travels through before it is exported from Uzbekistan, brand’s risk of exposure to forced child labor associated with Uzbek cotton and actions needed to start driving forced child labor out of the fields. The second part of this series, “To the Spinner”, scheduled to be released by RSN later in 2012, will take an in-depth look at the industries of cotton trading and spinning.
Uzbekistan, listed by the U.S. Department of labor for both forced and child labor, is the only country in the world where children are forced and organized by the government to harvest cotton which earns it over one billion dollars annually. RSN refers to the Uzbek cotton industry as the organized crime: though child labor in cotton production remains endemic in many countries, nowhere it is more organized than in Uzbekistan where the government forces over one million children to labor harvesting cotton each year, shutting down schools and public offices for months at a time, and mobilizing school students, teachers and public servants to the cotton fields each fall. This abusive practice earns the Uzbek government over one billion dollars annually.
RSN recommends that brands and retailers carrying cotton products should minimize their exposure to Uzbek cotton, the presence of which in a product implies both social and environmental risk and may seriously damage a company’s reputation. Instead they are encouraged to contribute to bringing about the change for Uzbek children, start raising awareness of this problem, support the public statement and engage in industry and multi-stakeholder initiatives.
Download the full text of the paper here.