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What Will 2014 Hold for Those Trying to Reduce Child Labor and Forced Labor in Uzbekistan’s Cotton Harvest?

For several years, the Child Labor Coalition (CLC), which the National Consumers League co-chairs with the American Federation of Teachers, has worked closely with the Cotton Campaign to reduce child labor and forced child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest.

Uzbekistan, run by totalitarian dictator Islam Karimov is the only country in the world where the central government has recently played a major role in causing large-scale forced child labor.  For many years, Uzbekistan’s leaders emptied schools and literally forced school children—sometimes very small children—to harvest cotton, a grueling, painful, sometimes dangerous job. The country is one of the largest cotton producers in the world, and Uzbek cotton sometimes finds its way into the U.S. apparel industry, despite a pledge by more than 130 apparel companies that they will not knowingly use Uzbek cotton in their garments.

For years, Uzbek children worked beside similarly conscripted college students and older adults for four to eight weeks at a time, missing much-needed school in the process. The workers were paid so little that their forced labors should be considered a form of temporary slavery. Those who refused were expelled from school, fired from their jobs, denied public benefits, or worse. Some harvesters have reported being beaten because they did not meet their cotton quota.  The forced labor of children and adults did not enrich struggling local farmers, but benefited the country’s ruling elite.

Despite aggressive advocacy by the Cotton Campaign, Karimov had intractably refused to ease the use of child labor and forced labor. Recently, however, the situation in Uzbekistan has shown signs of changing.

Advocacy by the Cotton Campaign led to a very surprising success in last summer, when the US State Department issued its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) country-by-country report and it included a downgrade of Uzbekistan to the lowest tier ranking, signaling that the Uzbek government was simply not doing enough to reduce forced labor and the worst forms of child labor in the country.

Although the advocacy community had worked hard and long to bring about this downgrade—and it was completely deserved—it was still something of a pleasant surprise. The US government has many strategic concerns in Uzbekistan related to supply routes for the war in Afghanistan, and it was assumed that the State Department would not be willing to issue the deserved downgrade for fear of alienating Uzbek leaders. Fortunately, the State Department honored the intent of the TIP report and in so doing, applied additional pressure to the Uzbek government.

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International Workers, Employers, Governments Call on Uzbekistan to End Forced Labor, Child Labor

Press release: June 11, 2013


The International Labour Organization supervisory body recommends that the Uzbek government to take urgent and serious action to end forced labour of children and adults in the cotton sector.

(Geneva) – The Government of Uzbekistan should take urgent and significant steps to end systematic forced labour of children and adults in the cotton sector, said workers, employers, and governments from around the world, during the hearing of the International Labour Organization Committee on the Application of Standards. The CAS, the tripartite supervisory body of the ILO tasked with assuring that all governments abide by international labour standards, released its conclusions from the hearing today.

“We commend the international representatives of workers, employers and governments for recommending the Uzbek government to invite a high level ILO mission to monitor the 2013 cotton harvest,” said Vasila Inoyatova, Director of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan Ezgulik. “Their recommendations respond to the facts, including the deaths of Navruz Muysinov, Igor Yachkevskiy, Aziz Bakhtiyorov, and Umid during the 2012 cotton harvest.”

As highlighted by the German workers and Education International, the state system of forced child labour is serious, systematic and continuous. The Uzbek government has already mobilized children as young as age 10 as well as adults, to plough and weed cotton fields. On April 19, the deputy governor of Namangan region beat seven farmers for planting onions instead of cotton. As was the case during last fall’s cotton harvest, the forced labour of government employees this spring has again disrupted the delivery of essential public services, including health care and education.… Read the rest

CLC Member ILRF Calls on U.S. Customs Service to Halt Imports of Forced Labor Cotton from Uzbekistan

(Washington, D.C.)A formal complaint against the importation of cotton from Uzbekistan grown and harvested with forced labor was filed today by the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), a leading American human and labor rights watchdog organization. Under the Tariff Act of 1930, the U.S. Customs Service is required to deny entry to goods that arrive at U.S. ports that contain materials made with forced labor.

For decades, the government of Uzbekistan, under the dictator Islam Karimov, has forced millions of children, teachers, nurses, doctors, public sector workers and private sector employees to pick cotton under appalling conditions. Those who refuse are expelled from school, fired from their jobs, denied public benefits or worse. The government combines these penalties with threats, detains and tortures activists seeking to monitor the situation and continues to refuse the International Labor Organization’s efforts to monitor the cotton harvest.

The complaint calls on U.S. Customs to issue an immediate detention order on all pending and future imports of cotton goods manufactured by Daewoo International Corporation, Indorama Corporation, and other companies processing cotton in Uzbekistan. Daewoo International, a South Korean-based company owned by the steel manufacturer POSCO (NYSE: PKX), and Indorama Corporation (www.indorama.com), a Singapore based multi-national that produces yarn, fabrics and organic cotton products, are two of the largest processors of Uzbek cotton.

According to U.S. import records, over 620 tons of cotton yarn and fabric has been imported into the United States from facilities in Uzbekistan since 2008. U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S.… Read the rest

Uzbekistan: U.S. Report Fails Child Labor Victims–Unwillingness to Impose Meaningful Consequences Allows Abuses to Continue

[The following is a press release from the Cotton Campaign regarding a letter to the State Department in which the CLC joined more than 40 groups to express disappointment about the failure to cite Uzbekistan for forced labor and child labor abuses in its cotton harvest.]

(Washington, DC, June 21, 2012) – The United States government’s decision not to cite Uzbekistan for its widespread practice of forced and child labor in the country’s cotton sector sends the wrong message to the Uzbek government, a broad coalition of groups said in a letter to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on June 19, 2012. The coalition called on US officials to press the Uzbek government to invite the International Labour Organization (ILO) to monitor the 2012 cotton harvest.

The letter followed the US government’s release on June 19 of its annual Global Trafficking in Persons (GTIP) report. The report fails to cite Uzbekistan as a country that does not comply with minimal standards to combat forced and child labor, or a “Tier III country,” the groups said. Under the US Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), the Uzbek government should have demonstrated that it was making “significant efforts” to eliminate forced labor to avoid a downgrade to Tier III, which would carry the threat of sanctions.

“Forced labor of adults and children is human trafficking under US law,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia Researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The failure to classify Uzbekistan properly for the fifth straight year is wholly inconsistent with the well-documented evidence of its systematic abuses. The US effectively sent a message to Uzbek authorities that enslaving children for profit in abusive conditions is cost-free.”

The coalition consists of human rights, trade union, apparel industry, retail, investor, and other nongovernmental organizations, including groups from Uzbekistan.

Uzbek authorities use a cotton production system that in practice relies on the use of forced labor, while consistently denying that forced labor is used and cracking down on rights activists who try to monitor it. Reports about the 2011 harvest by local monitoring groups and academic studies highlighted the coercion of children as young as 10 and adults to pick cotton and to fulfill government quotas.

The State Department report identifies the Uzbek government’s state quota system for cotton production as a root cause of the practice of forced labor. However, even though Tashkent has clearly made no progress in addressing the issue, the State Department waived the threat of sanctions, as it did last year.

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