Anti-Slavery International, the London-based non-governmental organisation working to elminate all forms of slavery worldwide, brought 13,072 signatures to the European Parliament on December 6, urging that members of parliament reject legislation that would reduce tariffs on imports of cotton from Uzbekistan.
Founded in 1839, Anti-Slavery is the world's oldest international human rights organisation.
Anti-Slavery spent a year gathering the 13,072 signatures using the popular petitions site change.org and other campaign sites, and through the use of a video, "End Cotton Crimes." They persuaded pop singer Ricky Martin to endorse the effort, and also got ethical fashion bloggers and online magazines for the ethical consumer to post the link to the petition.
The campaigners hand-delivered the package of signatures to the European Parliament on December 7th. MEP Catherine Bearder, a Liberal Democrat and supporter of anti-trafficking initiatives, invited to her office school-children who had written expressing their concern about their counterparts picking cotton in Uzbekistan.
As Anti-Slavery writes:
Shannon Harris aged 14, from Eastbourne said: “When I learnt what was going on in Uzbekistan, it was unbelievable. Students my age are supposed to be in school studying but are being forced to work in slavery picking cotton. Why is this still happening?”
The children were inspired by a lesson at school:
Neil Pittman, head of upper school at Bishop Bell, said: “After studying the UN Covention on the Rights of the Child, our pupils were shocked to hear that Uzbekistani children were forced by their government to work during the cotton harvest. The injustice of the situation was very clear to the pupils and they were concerned that cotton harvested by children may be used in the clothes they wear."
Joanna Ewart-James, Anti-Slavery International’s Supply Chain Co-ordinator, said:
“International law demands immediate action to stamp out slavery and the European Union must consistently work to end this abuse. By rewarding Uzbekistan with trade preferences the EU is ignoring the reality of state-sponsored forced child labour in Uzbekistan.”
For years, Uzbek authorities have denied widespread reports that children are sent to the fields to pick cotton every harvest season.
Now viewers can see for themselves, thanks to video footage collected by human rights activists and sent to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service. There is no denying that the school-age children in the video are picking cotton and carrying heavy sacks on their shoulders. Determining whether they were taken away from their studies or forced to work in the fields proves more difficult.
The human rights activists who provided the video, whose identities are being withheld for their protection, said one of the children identified himself as 10-year-old Otabek. Others look even younger.
Human-rights defenders and the region's independent media, including the ferghana.ru news website, have reported that the children, as well as teenagers and college students, were all forced by the state to help harvest the country's most valuable agricultural product.
Schools and colleges have been shut down in most parts of the country since mid-September, when the harvest season begins.
The footage was shot in Uzbekistan's major cotton-producing regions, including the Ferghana Valley, Karakalpakistan Autonomous Republic, and the Khorezm and Qashqadaryo provinces.
One of the world's major cotton producers, Uzbekistan has long been criticized for using what rights activist say is child labor during the two-month harvest season.
The widespread criticism has led some 60 clothing companies, including Gap, H&M, and Marks & Spencer to boycott Uzbek cotton until the country ends its practice of using children as cheap labor.
In September, the organizers of a New York fashion show canceled a runway presentation by Gulnora Karimova, the daughter of President Islam Karimov, amid protests by activists who claim her collection was made with Uzbek cotton harvested by children.
This week is the tail end of this year's cotton harvest, and children are heading back to school to resume their studies.
By Shukhrat Bobojonov and Farangis Najibullah. Copyright (c) 2011. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.