In September hundreds of thousands of Uzbek children will be taking to the fields to pick cotton. But this is no rural idyll. For two months the children are forced by their government to partake in one of the world’s most enduring examples of large-scale, abusive child labour.
Getting independent information out of Uzbekistan is almost impossible. Informers tend to be imprisoned, exiled or killed. But last October investigators for the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) managed to go in undercover and observe what happened during the annual harvest. The result is Still in the Fields, a shocking report recently released to coincide with a meeting of the International Labour Organization (ILO).
The investigators found schools empty and hundreds of thousands of children, some as young as 10, forced into the fields to pick exhausting quotas of cotton. Conditions were squalid, food inadequate and the average working day ran from early morning until 5pm.
Due to lax safety, five children lost their lives to the 2008 harvest, including one girl who committed suicide after being reprimanded for not picking her quota of cotton. Children earned little for their labour – a few cents per kilo – and contributions towards transport and food costs were often deducted from their pay. In the four regions visited by EJF investigators, children were found working in over half of the fields.
Uzbekistan is the world’s sixth-largest cotton exporter, selling around $1 billion worth of the crop to clothing factories in Asia – producing for the Western market – and to traders, many in Europe.
‘We have witnessed the forced use of children in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields and seen the conditions they work in. At the same time we have seen how a small, corrupt, ruling élite denies these facts and continues to be the main beneficiary of the cash the child labour earns Uzbekistan,’ says Steve Trent, EJF Executive Director.
Over the years the Uzbek Government has consistently maintained that there is no child labour in its cotton production. Under pressure from major retailers, who implemented a ban on cotton from Uzbekistan, the Government signed two ILO conventions: 138 on Minimum Wage and 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour, as well as releasing a National Action Plan to address the issue of child labour. EJF’s report proves that the Government has not honoured any of these commitments.
Few Uzbeks benefit from the country’s cotton industry. Farmers would rather grow food, which is expensive and in short supply. Children are the most vulnerable to exploitation in the cotton harvest, but they are not the only ones affected. Public employees, including teachers and medical staff, are also conscripted to the cotton fields.
The Environmental Justice Foundation wants a boycott of Uzbek cotton to continue until the Government ends child labour. It is also calling upon the ILO to make Uzbekistan a ‘special case’: this would give international monitors access to the country’s cotton industry.
Several major Western companies – including Tesco, C&A and Marks and Spencer – have announced prohibitions on the use of Uzbek cotton until forced child labour is ended.
For those companies which claim that they ‘do not know’ the source of the cotton in their goods, the EJF has just produced a useful guide called Somebody Knows. This explains how retailers can investigate their supply chain, tracing the production of their goods from raw materials to finished products, enabling them to eliminate cotton from environmentally or socially unacceptable practices – such as cotton from Uzbekistan.
For more on the campaign, and details of how to obtain Somebody Knows and Still in the Fields, see www.ejfoundation.org