The EU must act to end cotton slave labour in Uzbekistan


September sees the start of the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan, generating an estimated one billion US dollars annually.

It would be nice to be able to report that this revenue contributes to social and economic development for the ordinary Uzbeks.

But it doesn’t, unless you regard paying Sting over one million US dollars to sing for President Islam Karimov’s daughter as vital for the well-being of its 30 million citizens.

The story of Uzbek cotton is not just one of domestic corruption and the venality of a once idealistic pop star.

Cotton is a “bitter crop”, as Sting once sang, for ordinary Uzbeks who are enslaved to harvest it.

Approximately half of all Uzbekistan’s cotton is picked by state-sponsored forced labour.

Human rights groups estimate that hundreds of thousands of children and adults are involved each year.

Each citizen is given a daily quota; even for children this can reach up to 60 kg of cotton a day. Those who fail to meet their targets, or who pick a low quality crop, are reportedly punished by beatings, detention or told that their grades, work, or benefits will suffer.

Children who run away from the cotton fields are threatened with expulsion from school or college.

The work is dangerous: people can be left exhausted after weeks of arduous labour.

Those working on remote farms are forced to stay in makeshift dormitories with insufficient food and drinking water.

During previous harvests there were even reported deaths of children because of police brutality and poor safety standards.

The 2012 harvest, as a result of international pressure, saw a “demographic shift” in the cotton harvesters with an increased proportion of older children, up to 17 years of age, forced to pick cotton alongside adults.

However, reports of the involvement of much younger children persist and, despite the profits and the lavish lifestyle of the government elite which those profits sustain, those ordered to pick the cotton remain impoverished as workers are paid little, if anything.

Forced labour, according to the 1930 International Convention is: “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily”. This is a precise description of the conditions under which many Uzbek cotton harvesters labour.

It happens in contravention of the laws of the country and its international obligations, and in spite of the Uzbek government’s laughable assertion that children volunteer out of loyalty to family or their community, apportioning blame to irresponsible parents.

European trade

“Its foreign money that supports you, one day the money is going to stop,” Sting once sung in his 1988 release They Dance Alone.

But his avaricious excursion to Uzbekistan in 2010 was good for one thing: it highlighted for a brief moment the corruption of that state in its abuse of its own citizens.

This is not something which the trade ministries of Europe want its citizens to know about, because ignorance allows governments and business players to make space to profit from the exploitation of the vulnerable.

In spite of repeated trumpeting of their anti-slavery convictions as recently as June 2013, the UK Embassy in Uzbekistan hosted a lavish reception for Uzbek ministers to help strengthen bilateral relationships, including commercial ones.

But they are not alone in subordinating human rights and political principle to a craven pursuit of trade.

Although campaigns, such as Anti-Slavery International’s Cotton Crimes, and the Cotton Campaign, of which Anti-Slavery is a member along with the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), managed to convince many biggest clothing brands to pledge not to buy Uzbek cotton, the single biggest destination for Uzbek cotton is still the European market.

In spite of the continuing evidence of forced labour in Uzbekistan the EU continues to allow the Uzbek government to benefit from reduced trading tariffs, (the Generalized System of Preferences - GSP), for its cotton imports to the EU. Under existing EU rules these benefits should be withdrawn.

As in the 19th century, cotton is one of the commodities that most closely implicates us in the one of the remaining systems of slavery.

Some of us are probably wearing garments tainted by Uzbek slavery while reading this article.

Such are the level of forced labour abuses in Uzbek cotton production that local human rights groups have made the rare call for a boycott of this commodity.

The failure by European institutions to more systematically confront this issue is a scandal with very real consequences for the ordinary people of Uzbekistan.

The systems of international trade that have been allowed to develop with Uzbekistan allow its ruling clique to live in luxury and repress its citizens rather than enable those citizens to honestly work their own – and their country’s – way out of poverty.

At the outset of the 2013 cotton harvest in Uzbekistan Anti-Slavery International is asking anyone concerned with this scandal to write to their MEP to demand that the European Commission investigates the evidence that its rules on trade preferences are being violated by Uzbekistan and remove those benefits.

The ending of poverty is ultimately a political issue.

Rarely in the broad struggle against slavery is this more starkly demonstrated than in the continuing abuses that are perpetrated in Uzbekistan while Europe, in the main, stands idly by.