by Elena Marsteller
“Sales from $3,” announces the website of H&M, a retail clothing company that quickly and cheaply manufactures clothing inspired by current fashion trends. The ongoing popularity of affordable fashion is evident in the success of brands like H&M and its contemporaries, as even the First Lady has embraced the trend geared to the buyer on a budget.
However, a high price is paid for the production of $10 jeans by others in the global supply chain, especially children in Uzbekistan, who are forced into labor as cotton pickers during an annual cotton harvest. According to We Live Subject to their Orders by a group of Uzbek human rights activists in partnereship with the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), Uzbekistan is the world’s 6th largest producer of cotton and the 3rd largest exporter of cotton. Between September and November, Uzbek cotton exports generate $1 billion in revenue. The child laborers carrying the burden of harvesting the cash crop are unique because they operate as part of a state-sanctioned forced labor program, compelling all citizens, including children, to pick mandated quotas of cotton during the harvest.
Current State of Child Labor in Uzbekistan
A Human Rights Watch report states that “International nongovernmental organizations and foreign media outlets are prevented from operating in Uzbekistan, making it difficult to report on forced and child labor or other human rights abuses.” Furthermore, the government of Uzbekistan will not allow the ILO to send independent experts to observe and control forced child labor. Because of the Uzbek government’s reluctance to allow formal outside supervision of the cotton harvest, it is impossible to know with certainty the current state of child labor in the country. Much of the available information relies on the observations of human rights defenders in Uzbekistan. According to the most recent US Department of Labor report, 2011 Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, children in Uzbekistan are “engaged in the worst form of child labor” during the cotton harvest. In 2011 there were more young students allowed to stay in school rather than participate in the harvest overall. However, the report cites some incidences where young children were still required to pick cotton in order to reach a required quota. Generally it appeared that older children were sent to harvest cotton before younger children, but there were incidents reported where children as young as ten were forced into the fields.
The 2011 report further indicated that some of these children did not have adequate access to food or potable water, and drinking unsanitary water occasionally led to infection, meningitis, or hepatitis. The students that work in cotton harvesting are forced to miss school, and refusal to participate in the harvest may result in low grades, expulsion, or fines for parents. Under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a treaty ratified by Uzbekistan in 1995, Uzbekistan agreed to recognize the right to health, the right to education, and the right to adequate food. In recognizing the right to the highest attainable standard of health, parties agree to “promote conditions in which people can lead a healthy life.” This right “extends to the underlying determinants of health” such as access to food and potable water. In recognizing the right to education, parties agree that education should be directed to a “sense of dignity,” it should “enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society,” and it should “promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all national and all racial, ethnic, or religious groups.” In recognizing the right to adequate food, parties agree to ensure access to “minimum essential food which is sufficient, nutritionally adequate and safe.” According to the 2011 report cited above, these three rights are not adequately being enforced during the cotton harvest.
The Embassy of Uzbekistan to the United States writes that the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was one of the first international treaties to which Uzbekistan became a party after the signing of their constitution in 1992. Uzbekistan agreed to uphold the principles of CRC, promising to protect children from “economic exploitation and hazardous work conditions.” According to the ILRF, in 2008 Uzbekistan signed the International Labor Organization Convention 138 on Minimum Admissions to Employment, which sets the minimum age of employment to 15 years old, and Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labor.
According to the 2011 Department of Labor report, Uzbekistan has taken some domestic measures by passing legislation to prevent child labor including The Labor Code of Uzbekistan and the Law on the Guarantees of the Rights of the Child that sets 16 as the minimum age for work. Furthermore, in 2009 Uzbekistan revised a Decree on Adoption of the List of Occupations with Unfavorable Working Conditions to Which it is Forbidden to Employ Person under Eighteen Years of Age, which specifically prohibits children under the age of 18 from manually harvesting cotton. Finally, the Constitution and the Labor Code prohibit forced labor.
Supervision of the Annual Cotton Harvest
As a member of the ILO and a state party to the CRC, the Uzbek government must bring its harvesting practices into compliance with international standards, and allowing the ILO and UNICEF to monitor future harvests could help it to achieve this goal.
Although the Uzbek government will still not allow supervision of the harvest by the ILO, the Review of the 2012 Cotton Harvest in Uzbekistan by the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF) and the Cotton Campaign gathered information through human rights defenders in Uzbekistan during the 2012 harvest where defenders found some improvements: there was a reduction in forced labor in children under 15, and the majority of schools for children in this age group remained open. However, the forced labor system as a whole remained in place, with intensified forced labor of older children, more forced labor of adults, continued rejection of monitoring by outside sources, and the rejection of monitoring by Uzbek citizens. Older children were paid, but their meals were deducted from their payment, meaning that a typical 15 year old laborer would earn roughly 20 cents for a 12 hour work day. Even where children were not forced to pick cotton, they suffered when 60% of teachers were forced to pick cotton, causing classrooms to be combined or schools to be closed.
The Modern Commercial Setting
According to the ILRF the Uzbek central government has grown more reliant on child labor since it gained independence in 1991. In response, human rights groups like the Cotton Campaign and Anti-Slavery International have created an ongoing international campaign against the use of children in forced labor, which has caused retailers like Target, Wal-Mart, and Gap to agree not to “knowingly” purchase Uzbek cotton. However, according to the Guardianhuman rights groups continue to press major retailers like H&M to pursue greater transparency in their supply chains to ensure that none of their suppliers purchase Uzbek cotton to use in materials then sold to the retailer.
So, before purchasing a $4 sweater, think back to the beginning of the global supply chain. Consider whether there is adequate transparency to ensure that the cotton in your clothes was not gathered in Uzbekistan, where the cost in child labor far exceeds the monetary savings of the low priced good.