The cotton industry in Uzbekistan is powered through the exploitation of children and their families, with cotton harvests finding their way into products across the Western world
After being featured in 2008 on the BBC Panorama episode ‘Primark on the Rack’, Primark went to huge lengths to show that it prohibited the use of child labour, and was working towards improving its manufacturers’ working conditions. Primark stores display notices advising customers to visit their website to find out more about their ethical trading policies. Primark is not alone. Many large retailers go to some length to advertise their policies to the ethically conscious consumer. Although the conditions under which products are manufactured towards the end of the supply chain receive substantial attention, practices higher up the chain of production are often occluded.
Moral considerations stop at the sweatshops and factories where the products are manufactured. The processes prior to the factories however, are often riddled with exploitation and human rights abuses – a part of the manufacturing cycle routinely ignored. The extraction of cotton for garments sold across retailers in the Western world goes hand in hand with exploitation on the fields, with Uzbekistan being a powerful example of this.
Child labour is, unfortunately, a reality in many developing countries, but what differs in the case of Uzbekistan is that the children are not sent out to the fields by their parents in order to support a poverty-stricken family. Rather, it is at the command of the state. Every year, starting in September, schools across the country are closed for no less than two months and children are forced to collect cotton. The work the children do has little benefit for them or their families and is, rather, used to meet government cotton quotas.
Cotton is the main commodity and source of revenue in Uzbekistan. President Islam Karimov, in power since the Soviet era, has maintained his regime’s rigid monopoly as the sole purchaser of Uzbek cotton; the exclusive beneficiary of the country’s forced adult and child labour. Thus, Uzbek farmers have no option but to sell their cotton to state trading agencies at less than one third of the world market price.
As the main source of hard currency, Uzbek cotton exports are not transparent. Karimov’s dictatorial regime has utilised the substantial profits from cotton sales to maintain a clientele system of government, upholding the interest of small sections of the population. By managing the sale of Uzbekistan’s cotton crop, the political inner circle has direct control over a large proportion of the national income, thereby maintaining a vast repressive machine consisting of the army, police, security forces and prosecutors. Revenues from the forced exploitation of children and families are an integral part of a systematic and institutionalised mechanism of coercion used by the state.
It is estimated that about 1-2.5 million children annually, aged 9 to 15, are involved in cotton harvesting from September till December. The conditions of work are dreadful and children engage in dangerous and often unsupervised work. Getting reliable figures on the number of children involved in the cotton harvest is extremely challenging as the Uzbek government maintains its refusal to allow observers from the International Labour Organization, a branch of the United Nations, to inspect the cotton harvest. Gathering reliable statistics is further complicated as reporters and activists working towards this are often detained, with reports of summary detention and torture. Those families who have tried to resist the state’s coercion are threatened with the loss of social benefits and the expulsion of their children from school.
How has Uzbekistan managed to sustain such high levels of human rights abuses? Uzbekistan retains its 1992 constitution which, in theory, provides for a democratic republic and continues to play its part in the international political sphere. Indeed, on the international scene the Uzbek government has ratified selected human rights treaties. Yet, in practice, Uzbeks have their civil rights and liberties severely curtailed. Despite the alleged endorsement of fundamental conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO), including the prohibition of forced and child labour as well as the adoption of legislation to protect the rights of children, there has been no cessation to forced labour.
In recent years, the situation in Uzbekistan has received increased attention with the boycott of Uzbek cotton by certain European and US firms in 2008. But rather than economically crippling the Karimov regime, Uzbekistan simply began exporting its cotton to Asia instead.
The next logical step is to go further and ensure that products brought from those countries that continue to buy Uzbek cotton, do not contain Uzbek cotton. The RSN Cotton Pledge by the Responsible Sourcing Network aims to combat this. Recently, the pledge was signed by major brand names such as Zara, H&M,and Marks and Spencer. However, there are still large brands that continue to profit from the forced labour of children such as Forever 21, Toys R Us and Urban Outfitters. It is also important to note that a pledge is not legally binding, and without systems in place to track the origin of cotton used in textiles, the pledge is just another façade in the cotton trade scandal.
There is no way out for the people of Uzbekistan unless the international community makes a stand against such human rights abuses, and demands chain traceability right to the fields. Ignorance or indifference to the cotton trade in Uzbekistan will only have one effect – of reinforcing the forced labour practices of an autocratic regime.
Image credits: http://www.rferl.org/content/uzbekistan_students_forced_labor_cotton_harvest/24326670.html
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