As youngsters in the United States return to school, children in Uzbekistan will be returning to the fields. For them, it is the autumn cotton harvest. From now through the end of November, instead of attending classes, 2 million Uzbek children ages 6 to 15 will be forced to spend their days picking cotton.
Unlike most instances of forced child labor in agriculture, this mass mobilization is not driven by exploitative plantation owners or desperate families but by the government. Each year during the three-month harvest, Uzbek authorities shut down hundreds of schools, hospitals and public offices. Along with the children, thousands of teachers, doctors and public administrators are forced into the fields. What makes this mass forced labor uniquely pernicious is the fact that it is dictated and directed by the authoritarian Uzbek government and is executed on a scale unmatched anywhere in the world.
Uzbekistan, the world’s third-largest exporter of raw cotton, generates about $1 billion a year by exporting cotton. The government and bosses of state-owned enterprises reap the profits. Children who toil in the fields receive little more than meager meals for their labor.
President Islam Karimov, the strongman leader in Uzbekistan since Soviet times, has not only suppressed democracy, he has maintained his regime’s rigid monopoly as the sole purchaser of cotton grown in the country. Uzbek farmers are required to sell their cotton to state trading agencies at less than one-third the world market price. In turn, the government sells the cotton on commodity exchanges at the market price, guaranteeing huge profits.
Consumers and companies in the West prop up this monstrous system by unwittingly purchasing cotton harvested by forced child labor. Supply chain analysts have determined that most Uzbek cotton is sold to countries in South Asia and Eastern Europe. From there, the cotton is processed and turned into garments sold in retail stores in the United States, Canada and Western Europe.
In 2007, a group of nongovernmental organizations and socially responsible investors brought the plight of Uzbekistan’s children to the attention of U.S. apparel brands and retailers. Since then, a remarkable network of retailers, manufacturers, faith-based investors and others has come together to try to persuade the Uzbek government to end its use of forced child labor.
Unlike many other social justice campaigns, this effort enjoys the strong support of some of the world’s largest users of cotton. More than 25 major brands and retailers have joined the campaign to end forced child labor in Uzbekistan, including American Eagle Outfitters, Bed Bath & Beyond, Gap Inc., JC Penney, Kohl’s, Levi Strauss & Co., Limited Brands, Nike, Nordstrom, Timberland, TJX Cos. Inc., Phillips-Van Heusen Corp., Target, the Walt Disney Co. and Wal-Mart.
Several of these companies have instructed their suppliers not to buy Uzbek cotton until the government takes meaningful steps to restore basic human rights in its cotton sector. Four U.S. trade associations -- representing more than 90% of U.S. purchases of cotton and cotton-based merchandise -- have sent letters to the U.S. State Department, Department of Labor, the United Nations International Labor Organization and President Karimov demanding an immediate stop to state-mandated forced child labor.
Regrettably, the Uzbek government has opted to play a game of empty promises. It makes verbal commitments to change the current forced labor system, but it consistently fails to do so. In April, I introduced a resolution calling on the Uzbek government to allow the International Labor Organization to conduct an independent assessment of forced labor during the 2009 cotton harvest. In response, Uzbekistan’s deputy foreign minister personally pledged to me that his government would consider allowing the ILO assessment to go forward. Five months later, there has been zero action.
Uzbekistan recently ratified ILO Convention 138 on Minimum Age and Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, but it has continued to brazenly violate both measures.
By dragging its feet on reform and refusing to honor international agreements, the Uzbek government risks a major backlash in the U.S. and elsewhere. It is time for the Uzbek government to begin acting in good faith. It should immediately invite the ILO to send an expert observer and assessment mission to Uzbekistan as a prelude to the long-term engagement necessary to reduce and ultimately end forced child labor in that country’s cotton fields. It should allow Uzbek children to leave the fields and return to school.