This fall, schoolchildren will be transported to Uzbekistan’s fields to harvest cotton. Uzbekistan is the third largest exporter of cotton worldwide, and cotton serves as an economic monoculture and source of national pride in the country. Yet, reports by human rights activists, advocacy groups, and journalists indicate that government-directed forced child labour is staining the image of Uzbekistan’s “white gold.”
The issue has prompted investors and advocates to engage with global apparel brands and retailers on the issue of child labour in the cotton industry. SHARE and Meritas Mutual Funds have partnered with the As You Sow Foundation and other investors in a coalition calling on companies to ban Uzbek cotton from their supply chains. The goal is to exert pressure on the government of Uzbekistan to fulfill its international commitments to end child labour.
While child labour persists globally, Uzbekistan is unique. Interviews and surveys reveal that child labour is state-organized and enacted through an intricate chain of command. Cotton production quotas are established by the state and handed down to district officials, farmers, and school administrators who transport students—aged nine to eighteen—to cotton fields each fall. Older students are housed in barracks with limited or no clean water for up to three months of the year. Arduous labour and poor living conditions cause injuries, illness, and disease. While some students earn money by exceeding their cotton quotas, many children receive no wages for their labour. Students are paid 3-6 US cents per kg of cotton—10 percent less than adult pickers—and have their food and accommodation costs deducted from their pay.
Despite its prohibition by Uzbek national law and ILO Convention 138 (On the Minimum Age of Employment) and Convention 182 (On the Worst Forms of Child Labor), which Uzbekistan has ratified, forced child labour was again observed by activists, journalists, and advocacy groups in the fall 2008 harvest. Child labour is an unwritten, yet deeply entrenched policy that is rooted in national poverty and perpetuated by financial and physical coercion. Students that do not participate in the harvest risk expulsion from school, public ridicule and physical abuse. Parents and farmers who express dissent likewise risk economic and physical persecution. While Uzbekistan has demonstrated a will to eliminate child labour, it lacks the economic and technical capacity to meet government-established cotton production quotas without exploiting the labour of schoolchildren.
Since child labour contravenes Uzbekistan’s national law and international commitments, investors and advocates are focusing on the implementation and enforcement of existing legal frameworks. Investor advocacy for a global product boycott is rare; however, as demonstrated in the case of apartheid South Africa, boycotts can be effective in initiating change. Apparel retailers and brands are particularly responsive to concerns regarding supply chain labour standards as a result of the anti-sweatshop campaigns of the 1990s. To date, many of the companies that suffered both investor and consumer pressure on the sweatshop issue are industry leaders in addressing child labour in Uzbekistan.
The investor coalition is writing to companies urging them to trace the source of cotton in their supply chains and to instruct suppliers not to use cotton harvested in Uzbekistan. More than a dozen companies in the United States and European Union, including Wal-Mart, Levi Strauss, Gap Inc. and Tesco, have agreed to ban Uzbek cotton from their supply chains until reliable evidence confirms that forced child labour has been eliminated. Given that cotton accounts for over 15 percent of Uzbekistan’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the international ban has exerted significant pressure on the government to curtail child labour by reforming its cotton sector.
The multinational coalition is also engaging with the US State Department, the ILO, the Ambassador of Uzbekistan to the United States, and various apparel industry associations. SHARE and Meritas Mutual Funds have raised the issue with Canadian Tire, the Forzani Group and Sears Canada, asking each company to take steps to eliminate Uzbek cotton from its supply chain.
As the call for a ban on Uzbek cotton grows, it will become increasingly important for companies to take a proactive approach on the issue of child labour, to mitigate reputational risks and ensure on-going compliance with international labour standards. As the fall 2009 cotton harvest approaches, the eyes of advocacy groups and socially responsible investors will be turned towards the fields of Uzbekistan.