Universal Children’s Day - End the Worst Forms of Child Labour

Commentary, 18 November 2010

By Joanna Ewart-James, Supply Chain Co-ordinator, Anti-Slavery International

November 20 marks Universal Children’s Day. Established by the United Nations over 50 years ago, it is a day to encourage countries to initiate action to promote the welfare of children. This year Anti-Slavery International is calling upon the government of Uzbekistan to end the use of state-sponsored forced child labour to collect its annual cotton harvest.

The cotton harvest is coming to an end. Hundreds of thousands of children will finally be able to return to the classroom having been in the field with their teachers since mid-September working to meet quotas issued by decree. Children who refuse to take part or who do not meet their quotas are threatened with punishment, such as expulsion from school or physical beatings. This is child slavery.

In June this year Uzbekistan was called before the International Labour Organization’s Committee on the Application of Standards, who expressed their grave concern at the use of forced and child labour. The Committee urged the government to accept an observer mission to assess their compliance with ILO standards. We are disappointed to learn that the government refused this offer.

In the 21st century it is incredible to comprehend cotton, most of which ends up in Europe, is being harvested on an industrial scale without heavy machinery, but through the use of state-sponsored child slavery. Uzbekistan is the sixth largest producer and third largest exporter of cotton in the world.

Despite this, Europe gives cotton from Uzbekistan trade benefits under the generalised system of preferences, aimed at developing countries. Anti-Slavery is calling for cotton from Uzbekistan to be temporarily withdrawn from these benefits and is seeking signatures to our petition to the President of the European Parliament.

In a recent letter to the people of Uzbekistan President Karimov announced this year’s harvest is expected to yield, in record time, 3.4 million tonnes of cotton. Cotton is currently being sold on the international market at record high prices unseen since the American civil war. This year’s harvest is likely to result in a 35 per cent increase in revenue, which would net the Uzbekistan government more than a billion dollars.

A great deal of this wealth appears to be spent on conspicuous vanity projects that seem to attempt to boost Uzbekistan’s image of the country internationally. Earlier in 2010 the British musician Sting was paid more than £1 million to perform a single concert in Tashkent. In 2009 the capital’s FC Bunyodkor started recruiting high profile Brazilian football stars, including Rivaldo and Denilson as well as the former World Cup winning manager Felipe Scolari.

Very little of the cotton profits will trickle down to the Uzbek people. Children ‘lucky’ enough to be paid at all often receive less than five cents per kilo. Even then the majority of this modest amount is usually deducted to pay for transportation costs and cover meagre amounts of poor quality food and inadequate accommodation.

Despite forced child labour accounting for over half of the harvest, Uzbek cotton remains a popular commodity in the global market. The annual Tashkent cotton fair in October saw representatives of 300 companies from 34 countries around the world purchase in excess of 600,000 tonnes of cotton. Together with partner organisations, we are working to secure cotton traders’ support to bring additional economic pressure on the government of Uzbekistan to end this practice.

The cotton then makes its way to garment factories across the world, including Bangladesh, which has admitted to procuring more than half of its raw cotton from Uzbekistan. Bangladesh is a major clothing supplier to Europe.

While many retailers, including Gap, Nike and Marks and Spencer have put in place a ban on Uzbek cotton because of the known use of child slavery in the cotton industry, others are still refusing to accept responsibility for Uzbek cotton entering their supply chain.

In 2009, H&M and Zara were accused of selling clothes made with cotton from Uzbekistan following an investigation that linked Uzbek cotton to garments from both companies via Bangladeshi manufacturers.

According to human rights investigators in Uzbekistan, this year’s harvest has been marked by an increase in efforts to conceal the involvement of forced child labour. There have been reports of police and officials organising the mass mobilization of cotton pickers. In the district of Jizak, close to the cotton fields, the authorities have forced parents to send their children to work in the fields by going directly to their houses and demanding their signatures in the form of pledges making their children available to pick cotton.

As the harvest season comes to an end, temperatures in the fields drop to near freezing, yet the Uzbek government continues to force farmers to meet the quotas. This harvest has included reports of heavily pregnant women and pensioners joining children and forced to work at night under the light of tractors.

Abuses during the cotton harvest appear to have increased significantly this year and include humiliation and physical violence for those who do not meet their quota. At least one girl is reported to have died whilst working in a field and four more have died in a car accident as they were being transported to the fields.

As well as putting in place bans on the use of Uzbek cotton, responsible retailers and trade associations have joined other signatories to a number of letters to their national governments, to the International Labour Organization and directly to the government of Uzbekistan asking for an end this practice once and for all. Come next year, we hope that children will not be forced into the field but can enjoy the freedom and welfare that Universal Children’s Day aims to promote.

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