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.