Clare Nuttall in Astana -
Uzbekistan has agreed a new deal to export 300,000 tonnes of cotton fibre to China as it seeks new markets to offset a boycott imposed by western firms over the use of forced and child labour during the cotton harvest. While Uzbekistan, the world's sixth largest cotton producer, has for the first time allowed monitoring of its harvest by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), there have still been reports of forced labour this year.
In addition to the deal with China, Central Asia's largest cotton producer has also reached agreement with Bangladesh to export 200,000 tonnes of fibre in August. The two Asian manufacturing hubs will together account for around five-sixths of Uzbekistan's total cotton fibre exports, which are expected to total around 600,000 tonnes this year.
Uzbek officials are expected to finalise the agreement with China at a cotton industry fair in October, according to RIA Novosti. The new deal will boost China's share of the harvest from around 15% to 50%, making it the single largest buyer of Uzbek cotton. At the same time, the Uzbek government is keen to increase domestic processing of locally produced cotton to 50%. At present only 26-28% of the crop is processed domestically, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
Previously, Uzbekistan sold its crop to a wide range of buyers. However, the country has come under increasing pressure from western buyers to abandon the use of child and forced labour during the cotton harvest, with many western firms now looking to other suppliers. International clothing manufacturers and retailers including Gap, Levi Strauss, Marks & Spencer and WalMart have joined a boycott of Uzbek cotton in an attempt to force Tashkent to stop exploiting children in its cotton harvests. As of October 14, 136 companies with a combined market capitalisation estimated at over $1 trillion had joined the boycott, according to the Responsible Sourcing Network.
In 2013, for the first time, the Uzbek government agreed to allow limited monitoring by observers from the ILO. The ILO said in a statement emailed to bne that it has been "involved in the monitoring of the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan this autumn with the aim of preventing the use of child labour... Monitoring activities will continue throughout the harvest period. The monitoring takes place in line with the principles and practices of child labour monitoring applied by the ILO's child labour programme (IPEC) in several countries. They are adapted to the specific circumstances of Uzbekistan." A total of eight teams, each including an ILO-IPEC coordinator, are carrying out spot checks and other visits during the harvest, and meeting with Uzbek officials.
However, Uzbek opposition activists and international campaigners have voiced concerns that since Uzbek government officials have been allowed to accompany the monitors, the monitors won't gain an accurate picture of the situation. Independent news site Uznews reports that use of forced labour, including students aged under 18, has continued this year.
The Cotton Campaign said in a statement issued at the start of the harvest on September 9 that: "We remain concerned that the ILO monitors will be accompanied by representatives of the Government of Uzbekistan and the official state union and employers' organizations, whose presence will have a chilling effect on Uzbek citizens' willingness to speak openly with the ILO monitors."
The statement describes cotton production in Uzbekistan as "a state orchestrated forced-labour system", with more than 1m people including children forced to the fields each year. Those who refuse are expelled from school, fired from their jobs, and denied public benefits or worse." the statement adds.
Despite the presence of ILO monitors, there are allegations of ill-treatment of children and adults in the cotton fields during the 2013 harvest. Fergana News reports that a six-year-old boy suffocated under a heap of raw cotton on September 15 after going to the fields to help his mother.
While children have still been sent to the cotton fields in recent years, according to the Responsible Sourcing Network in 2012, "the youngest children (aged 7-11) were not mobilized in mass quantities" - though there are reports of both children and adults forced to prepare the fields for cotton sowing this spring. The authorities have also continued to force more students, civil servants, doctors and other adults to harvest cotton.
Despite the encouraging sign that ILO observers are being allowed to monitor the harvest, now that almost all of the harvest is being sent to China and Bangladesh, the growing boycott by western producers may mean less pressure on Tashkent to continue the reforms.
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