The European Union is facing accusations of tacitly supporting child labor after the European Council, the EU's main decision-making body, approved a trade agreement with Uzbekistan on textiles, the InterPress Service (IPS) reported.
Soon after Uzbek President Islam Karimov visited Brussels in January, the European Council approved a protocol granting various tariff and customs privileges and free access to European market for Uzbek textiles
Rights groups are protesting the move due to the use of forced child labor in the Uzbek cotton industry:
Rachel Denber of Human Rights Watch (HRW) told IPS:
There are serious questions about how this could have come to happen. It may be a case of brazen cynicism or it may be an example of a very worrying lack of co- ordination within the EU.
Denber said she found it "mind-boggling" that even after the EU's talks with Karimov, where concerns about child labor were expressed, the EU went ahead with textiles agreement.
HRW sent a letter to Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, outlining concerns about human rights violations in Uzbekistan, including the use of child labor to pick cotton.
Uzbekistan is the world's third largest cottent dealer and sells about $1 billion in cotton in year, shipping about 850,000 tons, says IPS.
Jean-Paul Delmotte, UNICEF's representative in Uzbekistan, told IPS that as many as one million children were mobilized, mainly 13-18 years in age, but some younger. With the high price of cotton in the last harvest -- then $1/lb and now $2/lb -- pressure was put on farmers to use child labor.
The European Council declined to comment when contacted by IPS.