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.

Soon afterwards, advocacy pressure may have led the Karimov regime to allow, for the first time, an inspection team by the International Labour Organization (ILO) for the 2013 cotton harvest last fall. The Cotton Campaign had been pressing for a robust ILO inspection for several years. Uzbek officials relented and agreed to allow in an ILO team comprised of staff members, but not the “high level” mission that civil society had hoped for (that would have included representatives of workers, employers, and civil society). Despite this, getting the ILO in to a rigidly controlled country like Uzbekistan to monitor the harvest was a small victory and an important step towards a fuller monitoring visit.

What did this year’s harvest look like? For the second year in a row, it appears fewer schools with young students were closed and fewer young students were compelled to harvest cotton. However, like last year, a greater number of teens and young adults were forced to go to the fields and toil under conditions that are often very difficult. ILO investigators say they did not see “systematic forced child labor,” but acknowledge they saw numerous children working. The advocacy community still believes that children are compelled to work against their wishes, but number of young children is decreasing. And that is good news for those whose primary concern is child labor.

We should not lose sight of the fact that much work remains to be done in Uzbekistan: a million Uzbeks still toil in forced labor every autumn and the country continues to repress civil society and human rights. The CLC and the international advocacy community, under the leadership of the Cotton Campaign will continue to pressure Uzbek officials to end the forced labor of children and adults in Uzbekistan. We hope to build on the promising developments of last year.

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