Advocates Protest Uzbekistan’s Use of Forced Child Labor

It’s not every day that you get your message through to one of the world’s most notorious dictators, but some of us in the child labor advocacy community think we may have just done that last week during New York City’s Fashion Week.

For several years, the Child Labor Coalition, 28 organizations working to end the labor exploitation of children around the world, has been deeply concerned about the forced use of child labor in Uzbekistan, where Islam Karimov has ruled with an iron fist for 21 years. Each fall, Uzbek school children and their teachers are forced to leave their classrooms and perform arduous hand-harvesting of cotton for up to two months. The children—estimates of their numbers range from several hundred thousand to almost two million—receive little or no pay and often perform this back-breaking work from young childhood and through college. The workers are charged for shelter and food and by the time those expenses are deducted their compensation is so small it would be fair to say they worked for little or no pay or “slave wages.” The profits of this labor tend to flow to Uzbekistan’s ruling elite. Unlike child labor in most countries, Uzbekistan’s occurs as a result of national policy filtered down to local government authorities.

Recently, members of the Cotton Advocacy Network and the Child Labor Coalition, led by the International Labor Rights Forum and other CLC members like the American Federation of Teachers and the Human Rights Watchhighlighted this issue by targeting advocacy at Karimov’s daughter Gulnara, who in addition to being Uzbekistan’s ambassador to Spain is a fashion designer who was participating in Fashion Week, where designers from around the world hold shows to reveal their new clothing lines.

Since Gulnara Karimov has bragged about the use of “high quality” Uzbek cotton and is a member of Karimov government, the advocacy community felt that she could fairly be used as an advocacy target.

As ILRF and the Cotton Advocacy Network planned its protest, IMG, Fashion Week’s organizer, washed its hands of Gulnara’s controversial show by cancelling it. Gulnara then moved her fashion show to the stylish Manhattan restaurant Cipriani on 42nd Street for a private show on September 15th. About two dozen of us followed the show to let attendees know about Uzbekistan’s child labor problem. It appears that our efforts scared away Gulnara, who according to media reports, was nowhere to be found.

We shouted things like “Hey, hey, ho, ho—Child Labor’s got to go” and “Uzbek cotton is mighty rotten.” We were joined by several Uzbek nationals, including one who had been forced to work in the fields himself as a child. Another Uzbek man said his daughter is a college student in Uzbekistan and that she is forced to harvest cotton every afternoon. He told a reporter from the Guardian that “it is back-breaking work, very, very hard, and most children have to work from sunrise to sunset every day until the harvest is finished. No weekends, nothing, for two or three months.” One protestor, an American woman from Connecticut, carried a sign that said, “Free Abdul,” who she explained was an Uzbek exchange student that she hosted who has subsequently been jailed by the Karimov regime as a political prisoner. Photos of the rally can be foundhere.

We handed out hundreds of leaflets and our protest received wide coverage about a dozen journalistic organizations including the New York Post, and Britain’s Guardian newspaper.

Members of the CLC conducted a similar protest outside the Embassy of Uzbekistan in 2009. At that time, some of us wondered if word of the protest would filter up to Karimov. With the ouster of his daughter from Fashion Week, we’re pretty sure Islam Karimov got the news this time.

If you would like clothing retailers to know about your concerns regarding Uzbek cotton, please consider adding your name to this petition(one of several targeting specific retail chains).

By Reid Maki, Child Labor Coalition Coordinator and NCL Director of Social Responsibility and Fair Labor Standards