(Brussels) – The European Union should urge the Uzbek government to grant access to the International Labour Organization (ILO) to monitor the 2012 cotton harvest, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations said in letters to the European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton and Denmark’s foreign minister, Villy Søvndal. The monitoring plan is part of efforts to end forced labor, including the state-sponsored mobilization of children, in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector.
The letters were sent on May 29, 2012, in connection with the opening on May 30 of the ILO’s annual International Labour Conference in Geneva. The letters urge the EU – a key participant in the meeting – to be unequivocal in its message to the Uzbek government about the need to allow such monitoring given consistent and credible evidence of the continuing practice of forced labor and child labor in the cotton sector. The coalition also urged Brussels to take into account the Uzbek government’s persistent failure to address the EU’s other longstanding human rights demands, including the need to eradicate endemic torture in the criminal justice system and end the continuing crackdown on independent civil society.
“The Uzbek government has outfoxed the EU for too long on forced child labor and other egregious abuses such as torture and its crackdown on rights activists, endlessly promising cooperation but always failing to deliver,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The ILO meeting is a critical opportunity for the EU to demand unfettered access for ILO monitors during the 2012 cotton harvest.”
For several years, the Uzbek government has rejected the ILO’s request to send a monitoring mission to the country during the cotton harvest. It has persistently denied that there is forced labor and forced child labor in its cotton sector and has cracked down on local activists who attempt to monitor the cotton harvest, the coalition said.
Reports about the 2011 harvest by local monitoring groups and academic studies highlighted the coercion of children as young as 10 and adults to pick cotton and to fulfill government quotas of cotton production across various regions of Uzbekistan. Uzbek children forced to pick cotton live in filthy conditions, contract illnesses, miss school, and work daily from early morning until evening for little or no money. Hunger, exhaustion, and heat stroke are common. The Uzbek government’s state quota system for cotton production is a root cause of the practice.
During the 2011 cotton harvest, the Uzbek government also arbitrarily detained three well-known rights activists, who were trying to monitor the use of forced and child labor during the cotton harvest, threatening criminal charges against two of them.
“Enslaving children and conscripting adults in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields is a practice that can only be eradicated under the watchful eye of the ILO and independent civil society during the harvest,” said Joanna Ewart-James, Supply Chain Programme co-coordinator at Anti-Slavery International. “Anything less than a full-fledged monitoring mission will place millions of children and adults at near-certain risk of forced labor for yet another year.”
The coalition, consisting of over 20 human rights, trade union, apparel industry, retail, investor, and other groups, including from Uzbekistan, sent a similar letter urging support for an ILO monitoring mission to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on April 24.
The European Parliament in December voted overwhelmingly to reject a proposed reduction of EU textile tariffs for Uzbekistan until the ILO is given access to the country to examine extensive reports of forced child labor in the cotton sector and the Uzbek government has taken concrete steps to end forced child labor.
“In a departure from an otherwise weak EU human rights policy toward Uzbekistan, European legislators seized the opportunity of the textile protocol to set specific conditions for the EU-Uzbekistan relationship,” Swerdlow said. “The vote indicates a newfound resoluteness to fight human rights abuses, a positive model for the EU.”