CENTRAL ASIA: A Hardline on Cotton

Publisher Name: 
The Guardian

Forced labour and other
human rights abuses are common in the cotton fields of central Asia,
according to findings published by the International Crisis Group.

In
its report entitled The Curse of Cotton: Central Asia's Destructive
Monoculture, the NGO described the inhumane conditions experienced by
child workers in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

"The cotton industry in these countries contributes to political
repression, economic stagnation, widespread poverty and environmental
degradation," says the thinktank.

In Uzbekistan
schoolchildren are routinely forced to work for up to two months in
cotton fields, the report says, while child labour is still widespread
in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

The
research goes on to highlight the fact that central Asian cotton is
traded internationally by leading US and European corporations, while
western banks finance its production. The final product often ends up
in well-known clothes outlets across the west.

Companies
named in the report include the US commodities giant Cargill, which is
involved in sourcing cotton from middlemen in the region.

A
spokesman for Cargill is recently reported as saying that if there is
child labour in their supply chain, it is because families in
developing countries need help in the fields. Other companies involved
in the industry include US-based Dunavant Cotton, ECOM USA and Paul
Reinhart, a Swiss firm.

Many western cotton companies claim they have little influence on governments to improve labour standards in those countries.

"Short of boycotting the country there is not much we can do," says Thomas Reinhart, a director of Paul Reinhart.

Cargill
Cotton, based in London, Liverpool and the US, is currently the largest
company sourcing cotton from central Asia and shows no signs of trying
to improve labour conditions in its supply chain. The company 's
corporate citizenship report from 2004 failed to mention supplier
auditing or child labour policies, but focuses instead on selected,
positive "case studies" of the company's impact on society.

Francis
De Rosa, a spokesperson for Cargill, says that representatives are
currently in Uzbekistan and "will take this opportunity to discuss
issues raised in the report with local authorities and selling
organisations".

The
ICG report, outlines the role of US retailers in influencing a change
in company labour policies. The US remains the biggest market for
textile manufacturers in the region which depend on the flow of cheap
cotton.

"Major buyers should conduct their own investigation into the realities
of their supply chain and seek to improve the terms of trade for
farmers," the report says.

It
also suggests that corporations should consider working with NGOs and
funding the distribution of information to farmers and workers
outlining their employment rights. Such partnerships are increasingly
common in other industries. For example, in both Nigeria and Venezuela,
the Norwegian oil giant Statoil funds an NGO which trains judges in
human rights issues.

In
India, attention was focused on child labour eradication within the
cottonseed industry in 2003 after multinational companies - including
Monsanto - formed a joint child labour monitoring effort in
collaboration with local NGOs.

Hans
Bederski of the charity Save the Children works in Kyrgyzstan on child
labour issues. He says that across the region companies buying cotton
should take firm action to ensure that they are buying from farmers who
do not employ children.

He
says the cotton companies could also help children to catch up on
missed education by "supporting accelerated learning courses" when they
are not working.

The
ICG report also claims that poverty is deepening and with it a "sense
of hopelessness, especially among young people" across the region. This
social and political discontent, it says, threatens to undermine
stability and provides fertile ground for recruitment into extremist
groups.

Islamists
already have a foothold across central Asia. The ramifications of a
poor response to this latest report by companies, NGOs and governments
may be a great deal worse than just more working children.

AMP Section Name:Human Rights