|Uzbek cotton farmers. Photo: Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights|
Swedish company H&M, the world’s second-largest clothing retailer, is under pressure to cut ties with supplier South Korea-based Daewoo International and others that purchase cotton from Uzbekistan, where the government allegedly forces children and adults to harvest the white fiber for little or no pay. The company has 2,500 stores worldwide including over 230 in the U.S.
“The government of Uzbekistan can only get away with these crimes by finding ways to sell cotton to big clothing companies, so major apparel brands have enormous power to end modern-day slavery,” writes Anti-Slavery International, a UK NGO. “H&M could step forward as a leader, or it could continue to assume everything’s fine, when all indications are that’s far from the truth.”
The campaign against cotton buyers has been endorsed by 124 senior Uzbek human rights activists who have posted a petition on the website of an international support coalition named the Cotton Campaign, that states: “We, the undersigned citizens of Uzbekistan, call for an international boycott of Uzbek textile and companies that use it.”
Forced Labor Practices
Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic of about 28 million people in central Asia, is heavily dependent on agriculture, notably cotton which accounts for one-fourth of its exports. It is the world’s fifth largest producer and third largest cotton exporter.
Anti-Slavery International estimates that between 200,000 and two million children - as young as ten years old - and adults are coerced to work in the cotton fields under “appalling conditions” and meet government-set quotas under threat of expulsion from school, loss of pension or employment, according to human rights activists
People who speak out are threatened and detained, the NGO says, while independent monitors and journalists have been denied entry by the government during harvest time.
“Uzbekistan is the only country where it is the government that organizes and benefits from this practice (child and forced labor),” adds Anti-Slavery International. The NGO estimates that the government earns around $1 billion in revenue from the sale of cotton. “None of the profits are returned to farmers or local communities. The government of Uzbekistan can only get away with these crimes by finding ways to sell cotton to big clothing companies - so major apparel brands have enormous power to end modern-day slavery.”
Approximately half of all cotton picked in Uzbekistan is conducted by forced labor, according to estimates obtained by the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia. Cotton farmers are required to sell their crop to the government at an artificially low price which the government then sells on the global market at prices which can be three times higher. Uzbek farmers who don’t meet their quotas risk losing their land.
The U.S. Department of Labor confirms these allegations reporting that “children in Uzbekistan are engaged in the worst forms of child labor, primarily in the annual autumn cotton harvest. Each spring, during the pre-harvest season, children work long hours sowing cotton. Local officials often close schools for six weeks or up to two months during the harvest and force children to pick cotton to reach the mandated quotas.”
However, the government of Uzbekistan has consistently denied the use of forced labor. It claims that cotton-picking is done by family farms. Officially Uzbekistan banned child labor in 2008 - adding a law into the constitution that makes it is illegal for children under 16 years of age to work - but NGOs, activists and other monitoring groups say that child labor has continued unabated.
Indeed earlier this week, the Uzbek-German Campaign for Human Rights and the Cotton Campaign released a new report titled the Review of the 2012 Cotton Harvest which verified that labor practices in the recent autumn harvest remained unchanged.
Many U.S. and European retailers have tried to distance themselves from the practice of child labor in Uzbekistan. In 2011 H&M, together with 100 other companies such as Adidas and Macy’s, signed a global pledge to oppose child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvests and “not knowingly source Uzbek cotton for the manufacturing of any of our products until the Government of Uzbekistan ends the practice of forced child labor in its cotton sector.”
Activists note that the pledge gets around the fact that most manufacturers do not buy raw cotton directly – instead it enters the international supply chain via countries like Bangladesh and China, where it is mixed with other cotton and used to manufacture brand label items for Western countries.
For example Daewoo International, which is easily the most powerful multinational in Uzbekistan producing a variety of exports from cars to cotton, processes about 20 percent of the country’s cotton. Daewoo also processes cotton from all over the world which is turns into yarn and clothing making it difficult to know which Daewoo products are sourced from Uzbekistan.
Anti-Slavery International wants H&M to establish a system to track where the cotton comes from. The activists also want the company to add a statement into all contracts, vendor agreements and purchase orders that prohibits suppliers from doing any business with Daewoo and other companies operating in Uzbekistan.
H&M told Anti-Slavery International that a policy banning the use of Uzbek cotton to their suppliers has already begun. Beginning in 2010, H&M said that the company has asked all their garment suppliers in Bangladesh to declare where cotton, yarn and fabric used for each H&M order comes from. The company claims to be working on software that will help them trace the sources on their supply chain better.
“Our vision is that all business operations shall be run in a way that is economically, socially and environmentally sustainable,” the company website states. “To ensure that the cotton included in our fashion meets sustainability standards, we put a lot of effort into making the entire textile value chain more traceable and transparent.”
Export Preferences Threatened
In October 2011 the European Union refused to extend a bilateral trade agreement with Uzbekistan that would have lowered tariffs on the country’s textile exports to Europe, stating that until government authorities allow the International Labor Organization and other human rights organizations to monitor and confirm that child labor was not being used in cotton harvests, the European Parliament would not consider including textiles in the trade agreement.
Uzbek activists with the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia have also called on the U.S. to suspend similar preferential trading rights given to Uzbekistan’s textile manufacturers under the General System of Preferences.
Unfortunately, the U.S. has actually moved in the opposite direction – restoring military aid to Uzbekistan for the first time since cutting it off since 2003 due to the country’s dismal record of human rights abuses. The reason is political – the U.S. wants to once again use Uzbekistan as part of a land network to supply troops in Afghanistan following a breakdown of operations in Pakistan.
This year U.S. and Uzbekistan engaged in many high-level meetings to discuss establishing closer diplomatic relations and increase the level of bilateral trade and investment.
"Nobody is shying away from having the tough conversation," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said. "That said, we also have other interests and things that we need to protect in our relationship with Uzbekistan."