Coalition of Unions, Retailers, Human Rights Groups Appeal to Clinton on Failure to Downgrade Uzbekistan
A coalition of unions, retailers, labor and human rights groups have issued an open letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing concern at the failure to downgrade Uzbekistan to Tier 3 on the US Watchlist in the State Department's report on Global Trafficking in Persons (G-TIP), released this week. The letter, signed by 18 organizations including the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), American Federation of Teachers, American Apparel and Footwear Association, Retail Industry Leaders’ Association, the United States Association of Importers of Textile and Apparel (USA-ITA), International Labor Rights Forum, Global Works, Human Rights Watch and others, and questions the US decision to keep Uzbekistan at Tier 2:
We were disappointed to note that despite strong language in the interim report, the annual Trafficking in Persons Report, issued today, fails to downgrade Uzbekistan to Tier 3, despite the clearly documented and egregious nature of the country’s state-sanctioned and widespread use of forced child labor. Representatives from our stakeholder coalition met with Ambassador CdeBaca and his staff on May 26. We understood that in order for a country to remain on the Tier 2 Watch list, the State Department would require credible evidence that the country had a written plan that, if implemented, would demonstrate significant effort and dedication of resources to this problem. In this case, there appears to be no such evidence.
Under the "automatic downgrade" provisions of the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a country that has remained on the Tier 2 Watch List for more than two consecutive years should be automatically lowered to Tier 3. This was not done for Uzbekistan and a number of other US allies for political reasons, which in the case of Uzbekistan, has to do with Tashkent's cooperation on the Northern Distribution Network to supply NATO troops in Afghanistan.
Uzbekistan went through a flurry of gestures timed to the G-TIP report as well as the review earlier this month at the International Labour Organisation (ILO). But the hastily-created state-organized commissions and declarations against the use of child labour weren't effective and were even duplicitous in a climate where the state sets cotton harvesting quotas and enforces them through pressure on local administrators and farmers, as the G-TIP report itself explains:
Provincial governors were held personally responsible for ensuring that the quota was met; they in turn passed along this pressure to local officials, who organized and forced school children, university students, faculty, and other government employees to pick cotton.
The coalition noted the recent ruling of the ILO's Committee on the Application of Standards issued at the International Labour Conference:
While noting the establishment of a tripartite interministerial working group on 25 March 2011, the Committee observed that the Committee of Experts had already noted the establishment of an earlier interdepartmental working group on 7 June 2010, for on-the-ground monitoring to prevent the use of forced labour by school children during the cotton harvest. It noted with regret the absence of information from the Government on the concrete results of this monitoring, particularly information on the number of children, if any, detected by this interdepartmental working group (or any other national monitoring mechanism) engaged to work during the cotton harvest. In this regard, the Committee regretted to note that the significant progress that had been made regarding economic reform and growth had not been accompanied by corresponding progress with regard to combating the use of children for cotton harvesting. The Committee expressed its serious concern at the insufficient political will and the lack of transparency of the of the Government to address the issue of forced child labour in cotton harvesting.
Given that the Administration opted not to downgrade Uzbekistan in G-TIP this year, despite failure to progress, the coalition urged Clinton to "make clear to the Uzbek government that full cooperation with the ILO, including acceptance of an ILO mission, is the minimum requirement for it to avoid being downgraded to Tier III in the next Trafficking in Persons report."
The letter was signed by:
American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA)
American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO)
American Federation of Teachers
Center for Reflection, Education and Action (CREA)
Child Labor Coalition
Human Rights Watch
International Labor Rights Forum
Media Voices for Children
National Consumers League
National Retail Federation
Not for Sale Campaign
Open Society Foundations
Responsible Sourcing Network
Retail Industry Leaders’ Association
United States Association of Importers of Textile and Apparel (USA-ITA)
Full text: Letter to Secretary Clinton on Uzbekistan
*UPDATE! After more than 350 people signed this petition, the International Labor Rights Forum heard back from A Children's Place. The company company has confirmed that it instructs its suppliers not to use Uzbek cotton, joining scores of other companies who have made similar commitments.
Jane Singer, Vice President of Investor and Media Relations at The Children's Place commented, "The Children's Place commends the efforts to end forced child labor in Uzbekistan and will continue to do everything we can to support these efforts."
We have a new action for people concerned about forced child labour in Uzbekistan, recently condemned at the International Labour Organisation annual conference.
The International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) has posted a petition at change.org addressed to The Children's Place, which has yet to catch up to its competitors in condemning Uzbekistan's abusive practices:
The government of Uzbekistan continues to remove millions of children across the country from school and force them to pick cotton during the harvest season. While over 70 of the world’s largest apparel brands and retailers have developed policies related to Uzbek cotton, the Children’s Place, one of the biggest children’s clothing retailers in the country has remained silent. The Children’s Place has a policy against using child and forced labor, but it has not publicly addressed the unique state-sponsored practice of forced child labor in Uzbekistan nor has it provided any information about how it ensures that its suppliers do not use Uzbek cotton tainted by these egregious human rights abuses. So far, the Children’s Place has refused to support human rights and speak out against forced child labor in the cotton industry, unlike its top competitors like the Gap and Gymboree.
Petitions do work! The appeal to Gymboree, signed by thousands of concerned people, led to the company's executives changing their minds and publishing a pledge to remove Uzbek cotton from their supply chain.
So please sign and make your voice heard!
The US State Department Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons has released its annual report titled Global Trafficking in Persons (G-TIP).
Uzbekistan is included in G-TIP as in past years, and remains on the Tier 2 Watch List due to failure to eliminate the state-sponsored practice of forced child labor in the cotton industry. (The definition of "trafficking" in this report includes any form of coerced labor.)
In 2008, under the conditions of the US Trafficking Victim Protections Act passed by Congress, countries that have been on the Tier 2 Watch List for more than two consecutive years would have to either improve their practices or be downgraded to Tier 3. This "automatic downgrade" which was anticipated for a number of countries began to create political difficulties when some of America's allies and needed partners fell on the list.
As a result, Uzbekistan remains at the Tier 2 level, despite four consecutive years in this category, and despite the State Department's admission in the report that Uzbekistan "does not comply with the minimum standards for elimination of trafficking" and has "demonstrated negligible progress in ceasing forced labor" and has failed to investigate and prosecute officials responsible for the use of forced child and adult labor. The State Department's rationalization has to do with accepting Uzbek government declarations in lieu of action:
Uzbekistan was not placed on Tier 3 per Section 107 of the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, however, as the government has a written plan that, if implemented, would constitute making significant efforts to bring itself into compliance with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is devoting sufficient resources to implement that plan. As in previous years, the government set a quota for national cotton production and paid farmers artificially low prices for the cotton produced, making it almost impossible for Uzbek farmers to pay wages that would attract a consenting workforce. Provincial governors were held personally responsible for ensuring that the quota was met; they in turn passed along this pressure to local officials, who organized and forced school children, university students, faculty, and other government employees to pick cotton.
So Uzbekistan was able to wriggle out of a downgrade to Tier 3 because it has a "national action plan" and has created a state-controlled "monitoring body," neither of which have proven effective.
Reports are already coming in this year of the use of children to do weeding of the cotton fields under conditions with hazardous pesticides.
The G-TIP report also cites the permission for UNICEF to help mitigate the use of child labor in Uzbekistan. This is an important Uzbek government -- and international agency -- admission that the problem of child labor exists -- it is often denied by Uzbek officials. The acknowledgement of UNICEF that it has been enlisted in such a mitigation effort is also a an invaluable validation of the reports of domestic and international non-governmental groups. Yet the UNICEF program is not a formal monitoring of labor conditions, which should be performed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
The Uzbek government has persistently refused to invite in an ILO mission during the harvest season, despite calls for human rights groups and employer and labor groups at the ILO annual meeting. With little time to organize and conduct such a mission properly starting in late September or early October, when the cotton harvest begins, it does not seem likely it will take place this year.
The inclusion of Uzbekistan at all in the G-TIP Watch List caused some debate among analysts who questioned the advisability of alienating a much-needed ally in maintaining the Northern Distribution Network supplying NATO troops in Afghanistan, although Uzbekistan has pledged to abide by ILO Conventions it has signed to eliminate the worst forms of child labor.
This article originally appeared on EurasiaNet.org.
The European Union is mulling ways to expand its textile trade with Uzbekistan, a major cotton supplier. Rights activists are lobbying hard against the ratification of EU trade measures, asserting that adoption would encourage the continuing use of forced child labor in the Central Asian nation.
The European Council approved an amendment in February to the EU’s Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with Uzbekistan, extending customs and tariffs breaks to Tashkent and opening up European markets to Uzbek cotton. The European Parliament has yet to ratify the amendment.
At a hearing of the parliament’s International Trade Committee on June 21, the trade provision came under attack from civil society activists, who assail Tashkent for pressing tens of thousands of school-age youths into service during the planting and harvesting seasons.
“Such cooperation [with Uzbekistan] suggests that Europe is open to business with everyone whatever the terms of that business,” said Joanna Ewart-James, Supply Chain Program Coordinator at Anti-Slavery International. “Ninety percent of Uzbek cotton is picked by hand, with almost half being picked by state-sponsored forced child labor. Uzbekistan is not a country with which we should be doing business and clearly not with the cotton and related sectors.”
Ewart-James added that teachers and parents in Uzbekistan who complain about the deployment of child labor battalions in the cotton sector are often threatened with dismissal from their jobs. Meanwhile, children who resist are sometimes beaten or expelled from schools, or warned that their grades will suffer.
A British member of the European Parliament (MEP), Catherine Bearder, who sits on the International Trade Committee, described the use of children to pick cotton in Uzbekistan as “penal servitude on a massive scale.”
“To pass [this amendment] would clearly send the wrong message about what the EU stands for, the rights of people that we trade with,” Bearder continued. “By reserving our decision on this agreement we send a clear message that we are watching.”
Uzbekistan’s ambassador to the EU, Bakhtiyar Gulyamov, was invited to the International Trade Committee hearing, but did not attend. The European Parliament is due to vote on the amendment later this year.
During her appearance before the committee, Ewart-James called attention to Uzbekistan’s refusal to allow inspectors from the United Nation’s International Labor Organization (ILO) to monitor the cotton harvest. “Only once the situation is assessed and understood can a suitable and sustainable solution be developed and implemented,” she said. “Despite Uzbekistan being double footnoted, which is ILO speak for a serious case, Uzbekistan has still failed to take its obligations seriously and invite in an ILO mission.”
According to Ewart-James more than 70 companies have already taken action to protest against the use of forced child labor to collect cotton. “These companies would welcome the support of the European Parliament as they try to reduce the risk to which their supply chains are exposed to illegal and abhorrent practices such as those found in the Uzbek cotton industry,” she said.
Speaking on behalf of the European Commission, Holder Standertskjold-Nordenstam, defended the amendment, saying it is not designed to leverage human rights improvements. He cautioned that turning up the pressure on Uzbekistan could prompt Tashkent to sell its cotton elsewhere.
“There have been calls for the EU to use the PCA amendment as, for want of a better word, ‘leverage’ -- to persuade Uzbekistan to make concrete progress in eliminating the worst forms of child labor in the cotton sector. … [But] the protocol gives us no economic leverage to work with,” he said.
An EU investigation into the practice of forced child labor in Uzbekistan could backfire, he warned, noting that “the Commission relies on cooperation, transparency and dialogue as more efficient tools to achieve its objectives.”
Standertskjold-Nordenstam downplayed the notion that the EU’s adoption of a hard line on Uzbek child labor, including the imposition of sanctions, could bring about desired changes. “Close cooperation aimed at eradicating child labor might be the better option,” he added.
For any close-cooperation strategy to work, however, Tashkent would have to believe Brussels means what it says. At present, some MEPs say, Uzbek leaders are unlikely to take potential EU threats seriously. Nicole Kiil-Nielsen, a French MEP, told the International Trade Committee that the EU’s inability to secure permission for an ILO mission to visit to Uzbekistan, despite being aware of the “massive use of child labor in Uzbekistan,” shows that Tashkent believes the EU’s human rights agenda to be a “paper tiger.”
“We have an opportunity to make our [Uzbek] counterparts understand that they have to listen to what we are saying,” she added.
This article first appeared on EurasiaNet.
Bama Athreya, President, GlobalWorks Foundation and Judy Gearhart, Executive Director, International Labor Rights Forum have co-authored an article on The Huffington Post, one of the most widely-read publications on the Internet.
Titled What We Can Do on World Day Against Child Labor (June 12) -- and we could add -- on any day -- the article has a simple request to speak up about the use of children in the cotton industry in Uzbekistan:
School's out for children across the country and we are pulling out our cool cotton T-shirts and shorts. Yesterday on World Day Against Child Labor, we might keep in mind that in some countries, when school's out, the hard labor begins - and in one notable case, it is to pick the cotton that goes into our summer clothes.
This past week, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) held hearings on forced child labor in Uzbekistan. The Uzbek government denied the problem. The ILO, however, was not convinced; its Committee on Application of Standards called for the government to accept a high level investigative mission. The Committee's decision came after a hearing earlier in the week where employers and trade unions from the US and Europe were strongly aligned in urging for an ILO monitoring mission to take a closer look after the welfare of Uzbek school children.
We all need to send messages to the Government of Uzbekistan that we won't accept cotton produced with the sweat and tears of children.
So get informed about the issue of child labor in Uzbekistan in the cotton industry by reading this web site.
Then we encourage you to send brief, politely-worded messages to the Uzbek government -- send a link (here) to Bama Athreya's and Judy Gearhart's blog from The Huffington Post.
You can write the office of President Islam Karimov or the Uzbek Foreign Ministry.
Dear President Karimov,
I am concerned about an article I have read in The Huffington Post about the plight of children in Uzbekistan who are taken from school and forced to work in dangerous conditions in the cotton fields. We urge you to comply with Uzbekistan's obligations under conventions of the International Labour Organisation to ensure that this practice cases, and call on you to accept the investigative mission of the ILO this fall during the harvest season to work toward the eradication of the worst forms of child labour.
Forced child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields will be the focus of a June 21 hearing at the European Parliament. The International Labor Rights Forum, an advocacy organization for workers’ rights, is calling for an international investigation by the International Labor Organization (ILO) into the use of child labor and has dismissed suggestions from the Uzbek authorities that they would monitor themselves as “ludicrous.”
But whether or not the European Union has either the will to examine the practice of forced child labor in Uzbekistan or its relationship with Tashkent remains to be seen. In February, the EU adopted a preferential textiles trade agreement with Uzbekistan which included various customs and tariffs breaks and unfettered access to the European markets.
However, an increasingly vocal set of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are warning that the EU’s human rights efforts are being undermined by unprincipled trading agreements with the authoritarian Central Asian state.
Liam Aylward, an Irish MEP, said in a press release on June 8:
I have repeatedly raised the issue of human rights violations with the Commission, in particular in relation to the Uzbek cotton industry, which is one that relies heavily on child workers and the lack of action on this issue of the Commission is worrying […]
UNICEF has reported huge child labor violations in Uzbekistan, yet nothing is being done to ensure that child labor cotton does not make its way onto the European market. In fact the euro notes we all have in our wallets could have been produced with cotton picked using child labor.
Aylward’s statement follows on from written questions lodged with the European Commission by Catherine Bearder and Leonidas Donskis, MEPs from England and Lithuania respectively.
They asked on May 23:
Following reports of ongoing state-sponsored forced labour and forced child labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry, behaviour which amounts to a violation of Article 15 of Council Regulation (EC) No 732/2008 of 22 July 2008, what plans does the Commission have to open an investigation under Article 17 of that regulation to establish whether preferential tariff arrangements (GSP) should be withdrawn from Uzbekistan? What action does the Commission intend to take following the complaints it has received about these human rights abuses from Anti-Slavery International, the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights and the Business Social Compliance Initiative, among others?
Nicole Kiil-Nielsen, a French MEP, separately queries in her blog the efficacy of signing a textiles agreement with Uzbekistan when Tashkent won’t allow the ILO to monitor the cotton harvest.
But the EU appears to be locked in a pattern of courting Central Asian states who repeatedly thumb their noses at demands for accountability. The June 21 hearing is already too little, too late for the many students already weeding the cotton fields and the hundreds of thousands of Uzbek children who’ll find themselves picking cotton at the behest of President Islam Karimov’s government again this year.
Originally published by EurasiaNet.org
Today is World Day Against Child Labor, and the International Labor Organization and supporters have organized events in more than 50 countries. They are making the day this year with a new report on children in hazardous work.
Human rights monitor Elena Urlayeva has been reporting from the cotton fields in Uzbekistan, where students have been put to work doing weeding. She notes in particular this year that children have been forced to wear face masks, to try to avoid breathing salt peter (sodium nitrate) used as fertilizer. You can see the photos she has taken of the students in masks here.
Last week at the ILO annual conference, employers and unions condemned child labor in Uzbekistan.
“This Sunday is World Day Against Child Labor, and the international union movement calls on Uzbekistan to respect fundamental labour rights and to allow an independent committee under the auspices of the ILO to observe the next harvest,” the General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, Ms. Sharan Burrow said in a statement.
Labor and human rights groups at the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) conference this week called for an international investigation of forced child labor in Uzbekistan, the International Labor Rights Forum said in a statement on its website.
The investigation was called for at the ILO annual conference in Geneva by Anti-Slavery International and the International Labor Rights Forum.
"A high-level ILO monitoring mission would be the necessary first step in providing an independent credible assessment of the problem," said the groups' statement.
On the eve of the ILO conference, the Uzbek government hastily came up with several initiatives and statements to the effect that they could monitor their own compliance with their national action plan. At the ILO meeting, the government delegation proposed having a state-controlled trade union monitor the cotton harvest.
The ILO’s Committee on Application of Standards issued a statement on June 8 after a hearing earlier in the week, questioning the credibility of Uzbekistan’s own monitoring proposal and also called for the government to accept a high level ILO monitoring mission.
Speaking in Geneva, Brian Campbell, Policy Director at International Labor Rights Forum, said:
Uzbekistan’s intention to monitor its own harvest for a problem it denies is ludicrous. Such monitoring cannot be considered credible in a country where independent civil society is controlled and critical media muzzled. If the government has nothing to hide then it should allow the ILO access during the harvest.
The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) reported that the International Labour Organisation (ILO) "heard disturbing reports from both workers and employers in regards to millions of children forced into from school into hazardous work in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan," according to a statement on the trade unions' website.
Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the ITUC said:
This Sunday [June 12] is World Day Against Child Labor, and the international union movement calls on Uzbekistan respect fundamental labour rights and to allow an independent committee under the auspices of the ILO to observe the next harvest.
Burrow said that Uzbekistan is one of the world's largest exporters of cotton.
"We ask responsible retail clothing companies to find out where their
cotton is coming from, because we will be working with international
groups to track this terrible trade," she said.
After reviewing the report from its Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations, the International Labour Organization's Committee on Application of Standards discussed the case of Uzbekistan on June 6, observers reported.
As a result of ongoing concerns about forced child labor in Uzbekistan, the ILO Committee will likely include a paragraph in its conclusions that will flag Uzbekistan as an egregious case of violations of ILO conventions including no. 182, "the worst forms of child labour."
The delegation from the government of Uzbekistan included Botir Alimukhamedov, first deputy minister of labour and social protection, and the ubiquitous Akmal Saidov, director of the National Human Rights Centre, who is dispatched to every international meeting to reply to criticism of Uzbekistan's human rights record.
The Uzbek officials countered the ILO Committee's concerns by saying that it had national laws and action plans to implement ILO conventions nos. 182 and 138 on the worst forms of child labor. They also claimed that with a literacy rate of 99 percent and the government spending 10 percent of the GDP on education and health, along with compulsory education until the age of 12, the factors were not present for child labor in their country.
The Uzbek government also made the claim that high levels of GDP growth are usually associated with lower levels of child labor -- a fact not independently confirmed for Uzbekistan -- and cited a GDP growth figure of 8.5 percent, based on state statistics also not independently verified.
Employers organizations and trade unions countered with references to the numerous and credible reports regarding the systemic mobilization of school children for the harvest.
Delegations from the usual allies of Uzbekistan made statements in support of Tashkent -- Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Belarus, Russia, Singapore, Cuba, Venezuela, Pakistan and China --as well as the Uzbek state-controlled unions
Delegations from the governments of the EU states, US, and Canada as well as and workers from the US and Germany made statements in support of the employers and workers, i.e. expressed concern about ongoing reports of the use of forced child labour.
The Uzbek government delegation thanked the ILO Committee for its "cooperative spirit" and reiterated that it had only signed convention no. 182 just three years ago, and was working on implementing it with monitoring and prevention.
In their closing remarks, the employers and workers again reiterated their call for access to Uzbekistan of an ILO mission to assess the situation and for a report to be made, and also called for technical assistance and work with the ILO IPEC program.
Some activists were concerned that if IPEC began working with the government of Uzbekistan first, this could preclude or delay the mission to Uzbekistan during the cotton harvest, and serve as a diversion from the Uzbek government's need to tackle the issues in good faith.
The government of Uzbekistan has not responded to the ILO's request to send a mission during the cotton harvest season this fall.