The Coalition Against Forced Child Labour in Uzbekistan comprised of civil society groups and dozens of individual activists expresses its deep concern regarding the attitude of the official institutions of Uzbekistan towards the problem of forced child labour in this country and their recent accusations towards members of the Coalition.
In a statement called “Clarifications by the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection of the Population of the Repubic of Uzbekistan with regard to allegations on «Forced Child Labour in Uzbekistan»», the said Ministry accuses the Coalition, the Environmental Justice Foundation and the international media, of «disseminating false and fabricated allegations about mass use of child labour in the agriculture of Uzbekistan».
As we have already stated in our previous documents (http://www.uzbekchildlabour.org/en/) forced child labour in Uzbekistan's cotton fields is a state policy. Uzbekistan is the only country in Central Asian, which still heavily relies on children in its cotton industry on a mass scale. It is not on the initiative of their parents that children work in cotton fields in Uzbekistan. All orders come from school administrations, which, in turn, receive unwritten orders from local authorities. Without instruction and endorsement from the top, no one would be allowed to shut down schools across the country even for one day.
Children of ages from 10-15 as well as college and university students are forced to work for up to 3 months in cotton fields without access to hygiene and proper food under the threats of expulsion from schools, while their parents are harassed by the local authorities. The difference between Uzbekistan and other developing countries where children also work in cotton fields is that in Uzbekistan children are forced to work by the state, whereas in other countries child labour is not state sponsored.
Last autumn, during cotton harvest season, the Coalition has conducted a survey in Surkhandarya and Kashkadarya regions of Uzbekistan, which revealed that more then 250 thousand children only in these two provinces were forced to abandon school to pick cotton. We are receiving reports that for this very moment schoolchildren from rural areas are again being sent for spring agricultural works, one month prior to the end of academic year.
The Ministry of Labour and Social Protection of Uzbekistan alleges that “false information is a part of dishonest and unfair competition in the market of cotton producers. It pursues the aim to lower the rating and price for Uzbek cotton, which today is one of the most competitive in the world and by that to slow down economic growth of Uzbekistan”. Such claims more resound like old Soviet accusations in “conspiracy of evil forces of capitalism», rather than an honest assessment of the problem and call for reform of its cotton industry.
In no way the Coalition intends to damage cotton industry or the farmers of Uzbekistan. On contrary, we call upon its Government to release administrative control of farmers and stop imposing upon them the so called quota (directive plans) and artificially low prices on cotton. Uzbekistan has a huge army of unemployed who could work in cotton picking. However, the prices of picking cotton are so low, that the unemployed prefer to leave to work in Russia and neighbouring Kazakhstan. Current «competitiveness» of the Uzbek cotton is only achieved by the suppression of labour cost and massive use of child labour.
Ministry of Labour and Social Protection has quoted a number of national laws and ILO conventions adopted by Uzbekistan regarding child protection. However, there is no rule of law in Uzbekistan. Laws are being systematically abused by the authorities themselves, whereas international obligations remain on paper and are not fulfilled. Therefore, we urge the Uzbek government to implement its own laws and international commitments.
What the Coalition does to address the issue of forced child labour in Uzbekistan? On the 3rd of April we held a roundtable on this issue in Bremen, Germany. It was attended by representatives of international organizations, European Commission, The Council of Europe, Mr. Terry Townsend, the Executive Director of the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC), and Dr. Francesca Mancini, member of the Expert Panel on Social, Environmental and Economic Performance of Cotton (SEEP) created by ICAC, human rights activists and journalists. The participants had an opportunity to hear and see the evidence of the forced child labour in Uzbekistan presented by Uzbek human rights activists.
The roundtable was held in parallel to the 29th International Cotton Conference organized by the Bremen Cotton Exchange. On the 4th of April we held a separate meeting with Mr. Townsend, which was attended by other ICAC representatives as well as Jan Wellmann, Executive, and Elke Hortmeyer, Director of Economic Research, Bremen Baumwollborse, Zbigniew Rostwitalski, Executive Vice President, Andrzej Drozdz, Chief Cotton Expert, and Alois Schönberger, Member of the Board, Gdynia Cotton Association. The Executive Director of ICAC has acknowledged the problem of forced child labour in Uzbekistan and reported about the efforts of the ICAC, ILO and UNICEF to conduct a study on labor conditions in the Uzbekistan cotton sector.
We are also happy to note that the ranks of international actors joining the campaign on the eradication of forced labour in Uzbekistan is growing. We are receiving positive signals from UNICEF and ILO who are going to enforce their efforts on tackling this issue.
We also note that the growing number of European retailers joining the boycott of the Uzbek cotton and the textile produced from it. The latest company, which has joined.
We hope that the European Union and the administration of the United States will openly condemn the government of Uzbekistan for the use of forced and child labour and make this issue an essential part of the human rights dialogue with Uzbekistan and use the whole range of instruments, including the leverage of import taxes, to persuade the government of Uzbekistan to abolish the practice of child slavery.the boycott is C&A, one of Europe's largest clothing retailers.
Finally, we express our willingness to cooperate with the government of Uzbekistan on eradication of this semi-feudal practice of exploiting child labour. It is in genuine national interests of Uzbekistan to proceed with reforms in the cotton sector, to return children to schools, and to provide fair, transparent and accountable distribution of cotton export revenue. The profits from cotton exports must serve the nation, not the narrow political elites and ruling clans.