Friday, February 22, 2013

Cotton exporters using child labor

By CNN blog producer

Cotton exporters using child labor:
Conscientious consumers are credited with driving change in forced child labor practices inside one of the world's most repressive regimes: Uzbekistan.
But while progress has been made, the fight is far from over.
"Uzbekistan has one of the most atrocious human rights records of any nation in the world," said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia research for Human Rights Watch.  "It's longstanding President (Islam Karimov) has been in power for 23 years and he crushes dissent."
Hundreds of thousands of students in Uzbekistan are pulled from their classrooms every fall and ordered into the fields to pick cotton for little or no pay.
A mother was recorded on video saying that if she didn’t send her child to pick cotton, she faced a fine equivalent to two weeks pay.  Rights groups say students are also threatened with losing their seat in the classroom.
Government and private sector employees are also forced to join the harvest and meet quotas knowing that if they don't, they could lose their jobs.
Forced labor in Uzbekistan's cotton industry is a legacy of the Soviet era. It survives because Uzbekistan's government officials profit directly from the cotton harvest.
Farmers are told to plant the cotton and the government buys it up at artificially low prices. It is then sold on the global market.
"Child labor had been widely used under the Soviet regime," Uzbek rights defender Elena Urlaeva explained to CNN. "It has been around in the 20 years of independence as well. It is free after all.
"Children and their parents have been taught that cotton is the white gold and national pride of the country. They study that in school from the first grade. Those who disagree have been presented as enemies of the State."
Urlaeva and others in Uzbekistan's Human Rights Alliance have been harassed, arrested and jailed. Human Rights Watch had its offices shut  down. The International Labor Organization was refused permission to monitor the cotton harvest.
Students and workers forced to pick cotton say they were ordered not to take cell phones or cameras into the fields that could be used to document working conditions.
Today, more than 130 apparel manufacturers have pledged not to knowingly include Uzbek cotton in their clothing or other goods.
The pledge is the result of years of efforts by groups like the Responsible Sourcing Network that are working to end forced labor.
Most companies are ready to sign up because they concede consumers are sympathetic to the cause. It's just good business.
"Today is an era of transparency," said Patricia Jurewicz, Director of the Responsible Sourcing Network. She says consumers choose brands which are committed to not having forced labor associated with their products.
That pressure is making a difference.
In 2012, Uzbekistan announced it was ending the use of primary school age student labor.
Activists like Elena Urlaeva found a sharp reduction in the very young but found last year's harvest still saw high school and university students forced into the fields.
Monitoring whether the government is abiding by its own pledge isn't easy.
Urlaeva said: "When human rights activists tried to approach the fields where children were working they noticed that they were guarded by the militia, prosecutor's office and by special services (referring to KGB-like structures there)."
Urlaeva said she was detained in the Tashkent region after documenting 11 to 18 year olds being used in the cotton harvest.
Uzbekistan's Embassy in Washington declined an interview, but gave CNN a written statement.
In part, it said: "The statements about arrests, beatings and detentions of those who are involved in cotton harvest do not correspond to the reality.
"Uzbek cotton has a superior quality and these statements may be the result of the efforts of our competitors to create unhealthy environment and dishonor Uzbek producers."
The statement says Uzbek farmers are paid in full for their cotton, but rights defenders insist it's a price set by the government to ensure a healthy profit for itself.
Uzbek officials concede the cotton harvest is a Soviet-era relic, and insist the government is trying to diversify and change. Activists aren't so sure.
"Without an open civil society, without international agencies able to get in and without reporters able to get in," says HRW's Swerdlow, "it's going to be extremely difficult to verify what the government is doing, as it says, to combat the problem of forced child labor and forced labor of adults."
Despite the hurdles, activists are encouraged that the number of global brands which have pledged not to "knowingly" use Uzbek cotton is up from 60 a year ago to more than 130.
Activists concede the fight against forced labor is far from over.
There is a major effort to get companies that signed the pledge to audit their supply chains.
Activists have to keep up the pressure on both countries and companies.
But the best hope for a million Uzbek students may be those informed consumers who sustain their point by not buying clothes sourced with slave labor - no matter the cost.

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