Olim Abdullayev in Tashkent -
Uzbekistan's government has used an international fair to brag about apparent achievements that the country has made in its cotton industry since it became independent in 1991. But critics charge that the government is continuing Soviet practices of forced labour, including using child workers, prompting global retailers and apparel brands to avoid the use of Uzbek cotton in their products.
Uzbekistan is one of the world's largest exporters of cotton, producing over 3m tonnes of raw cotton and 1m tonnes of cotton fibre annually. Cotton is a major source of revenue for the impoverished Central Asian state, raising roughly $1bn in export earnings for the government in 2013, Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyayev told the 10th International Uzbek Cotton and Textile Fair in Tashkent on October 13. He said the country expects to earn $1.2bn from exporting cotton and textile this year.
Uzbekistan has been increasing the volume of cotton processed domestically, as it faces an international boycott because of the continued use of forced and child labour in the cotton industry. According to local media, the country increased the volume of cotton processed domestically from 7% of total production in the 1990s to 44% in 2014.
Mirziyayev was quoted as saying by Trend the government plans to increase the share of Uzbek cotton processed domestically to 70% by 2020. "The Uzbek government is steadfastly continuing a policy of reducing exports of cotton fibre through creating new production facilities and boosting processing capacities, which will be increased to 500,000 tonnes [a year] by the end of 2015."
At the fair Uzbekistan signed contracts to supply 580,000 tonnes of cotton fibre to foreign consumers, 100,000 tonnes less than last year. According to the Uzbek PM, major markets for its cotton are China, Bangladesh, Turkey, Russia, Singapore and South Korea – a geographic spread explained by the success of a campaign to boycott Uzbek cotton launched in the West over forced and child labour practices.
Mirziyayev praised local breeders that developed 160 new varieties of cotton with "exceptional whiteness, early maturation, high yield and length of fibre, as well as resistance to diseases and pests" last year alone. This meant that over 90% of cotton harvested last year was of "superior" quality, according to local media.
But observers says the high quality of Uzbek cotton can be explained by the fact it is mostly hand-picked by students and public-sector employees such as teachers, doctors and nurses. Mechanised picking is believed to be damaging for cotton fibres if a machine fails to remove cotton wholly from the boll. This is confirmed by the government figures that only 1,200 cotton-picking combines are involved in this autumn's cotton picking compared with over 40,000 in 1991.
Despite ratifying the International Labour Organisation's (ILO's) Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention in 2008 and the ILO's Minimum Age Convention in 2009, Uzbekistan is still widely accused of continuing to use child labour. "In 2013, Uzbekistan made no advancement in efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labour," the US Department of Labour said in its 2013 “Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labour” report published on October 7. "The national government maintained policies in the cotton sector, which mandate harvest quotas and cause local administrators to organise and impose forced labour on children and adults. Although the government continues to publicly deny the use of forced labour, including of children, in the cotton harvest, information indicates that children continue to be required to engage in the worst forms of child labour in cotton production.”
Uzbekistan allowed the ILO to monitor the cotton harvest last year, and its monitors reported 57 confirmed cases of children working in the cotton fields, including 53 children aged 16 and 17. The US Department of Labour's report cites NGOs and US embassy information that "there were isolated incidents of children as young as 10 working in the cotton fields."
The Cotton Campaign, an umbrella of human rights organisations, trade unions, socially-responsible investors and business organisations, which was established in 2007 to end forced labour of children and adults in the cotton industry in Uzbekistan, says that every year the Uzbek government forces "over a million children", teachers, public-sector workers and employees of private businesses to manually pick cotton under threat of expulsion from school or loss of employment, pensions and child benefits.
While the government has stopped sending schoolchildren into the fields to pick cotton, it is continuing to enrol college students aged 16 and 17 in the cotton harvest, a manager at a small enterprise outside the capital, Tashkent, tells bne. "Private small businesses have to send at least one employee to pick cotton," he says. "Instead of releasing our workers we hire day labourers and pay them UZS50,000 [$17 at the black-market exchange rate] a day to pick cotton.”
Tesco jumps on bandwagon
Uzbek rights activists' efforts to publicise the use of forced and child labour in the Uzbek cotton industry resulted in the launch of the Company Pledge Against Child and Adult Forced Labour in Uzbek Cotton, simply known as the Cotton Pledge, in 2008, which has now been signed by over 160 brands and companies which are committed to preventing Uzbek cotton from entering their supply chains.
"Markets for Uzbek cotton sourced with forced labour continue to diminish as consumers become more aware of the egregious human rights violations that occur during the Uzbek cotton harvest, with over four million Uzbek citizens forced to pick cotton under threat of penalty," according to Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN).
The RSN said in a press release on October 9 that the world's second largest retailer, Tesco, was the latest multinational retailer to sign the pledge to join Target, Walmart, C&A, Marks & Spencer, Ikea, adidas, Nike and H&M. “I applaud Tesco and the other retailers and brands for maintaining their commitments to avoid cotton from Uzbekistan,” the press release quotes Patricia Jurewicz, director of RSN, as saying. “Having the largest retailers in the world standing united shows that they are committed to doing their part to end forced labour, both of children and adults.”
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