Activists hail move against Uzbekistan child labour
Date of publication: June 15, 2009
Source: Deutsche Presse-Agentur
By Shabtai Gold
Child rights activists have hailed the move by several big-name companies to boycott Uzbek cotton over allegations of child labour - but warned it was just the first step against such abusive practices.
'Every year Uzbekistan is turned into a giant labour camp,' said one activist from the Central Asian republic, recalling conditions in the cotton fields.
Children work in freezing cold temperatures and in searing heat, witnesses said. Their jobs tend to clash with school, so they end up losing out on education while the state benefits by an estimated billion dollars annually, for a product dubbed 'white gold.'
Key companies, including Asda Wal-Mart, the British Tesco, Marks and Spencer and Gap, the clothing retailer, have all agreed in recent months to pull out of Uzbekistan as the evidence of forced child labour in return for meagre salaries mounted.
'In the past four years the problem has became more known and transparent,' the Uzbek activist said, in part thanks to the efforts of investigators from charities working under-cover.
Uzbekistan, however, is not the only country in the region with problems.
'I was in Pakistan last year and I saw hundreds of young girls picking cotton,' recalled Neil Kearney from the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Federation. 'Their hands were torn and they were beaten when they didn't meet their quotas.'
Tajikistan too was said to employ children in the fields.
Yet Human Rights Watch and the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) agree with Kearney that Uzbeks are probably the worst off, as the forced child labour took place in state-controlled situations.
'Children are used at a time when many adults in area are unemployed,' Kearney said.
The campaign's success in bringing big business on board prompted Uzbekistan to sign an International Labour Organization (ILO) convention, pledging to end hazardous child labour.
'We need to end the practice of child labour,' Chris McCann, the country manager in Britain for Asda Wal-Mart, told a forum on the sidelines of the ILO's annual conference in Geneva.
The ILO estimates that tens of millions of children work in what it considers to be hazardous labour conditions, in various locations around the world.
Ending child labour 'is a gift we gift ourselves,' said Lakshmi Bhatia from Gap Inc.
The Uzbek diplomatic mission to Geneva did not respond to a request for information on the allegations and the specifics of the government's plans to implement the convention.
Activists from groups like Human Rights in Central Asia have remained sceptical as to whether the ink on the paper will translate into action in the cotton fields.
One of the problems is the lack of oversight. Rights groups say they can only observe the fields incognito. The media is largely controlled by the state and activists have complained of harsh clamp- downs and intimidation.
The EJF has been pushing a campaign with the slogans 'pick your cotton carefully' and 'somebody knows where your cotton comes from,' asking retailers and consumers to take note of the source of the raw materials they use.
The activists have been calling for ban on Uzbek 'white gold,' until they are convinced there was no longer any forced child labour in the cotton fields.
'It is possible to know the origin (of cotton) as a matter of fact when making purchasing decisions within manufacturing chains, but it does require collaboration from all parts of the chain,' said EJF in a brochure.
'We are much better now than we were even five years ago,' said McCann of Asda Walmart. 'But there is still an enormous amount of learning to take place.'