By Reid Maki, CLC Coordinator & NCL Director of Social Responsibility and Fair Labor Standards
There are a lot of countries in the world with egregious forms of child labor but only one where that child labor is forced by the central government. That country is Uzbekistan, where the government requires school children to suspend their education, leave school, and harvest cotton for several weeks each year. The work is arduous and the pay is miniscule.
Decades ago, Uzbekistan had tractors to harvest the cotton but the tractors fell into disrepair and instead of buying new machinery the government decided that it could save money by conscripting children to do the work.
On Wednesday, about 50 advocates and supporters gathered outside the Uzbekistan Embassy in downtown Washington, D.C. for a rally to tell the government of Uzbekistan that it’s time to stop exploiting its children to harvest it’s cash crop. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), and the Child Labor Coalition (CLC) helped organize the event. The CLC, which has 22 members including the ILRF, is co-chaired by the AFT and the National Consumers League (NCL).
“Today, we are here to remind consumers that the cotton that goes into the clothes they wear may have been harvested by school children in Uzbekistan, where the government has replaced mechanical harvesters with the sometimes bloody fingers of small children and teenagers, who are forced to leave school and pick cotton,” noted NCL’s Sally Greenberg, also the co-chair of the CLC.
In a September LA Times editorial about Uzbekistan’s unacceptable use of children to harvest cotton, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) noted, “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.”
Some of that may eventually end up in garments sold in the United States, Canada, and Europe, noted Greenberg, who acknowledged that some major companies—Gap Inc., Levi Strauss & Co., Limited Brands Inc. and Nike Inc., among them—have taken steps to eliminate Uzbek cotton from their supply chains.
The rally was timed to coincide with the cotton harvest season in Uzbekistan and with an Uzbek cotton fair, where the majority of cotton contracts will be signed this year, Bama Athreya, executive director of the ILRF told reporter Liza Casabona. “We are taking this action today to send a message to all those buyers,” Athreya said.
Antonia Cortese, secretary-treasurer of AFT, reminded listeners that Uzbekistan is violating the International Labour Organization’s conventions against the worst forms of child labor even though it has agreed to honor them. Cortese noted that teachers are conscripted to harvest the cotton along with the children.
Among the supporters at the rally was a young Uzbeki man who carried a hand-written sign that said, “I was a slave.” As a college student in Uzbekistan, he and his classmates had been forced to enter the fields. He spoke passionately about his memories of harvesting cotton, remembering clearly the painful fingertips from getting pricked as he picked the cotton. He said he’d heard about the rally while driving that morning and decided he had to take a stand against his government’s repressive policies. His sister who joined him initially became afraid of reprisals from the Uzbek government and retreated to the car, he explained.
Cortese and Greenberg tried to deliver hundreds of postcards of concern to the Embassy staff but no one would answer the door. The protest, which lasted about an hour, also featured speeches from and the AFL-CIO and the United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society.
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The 22 members of the Child Labor Coalition have named the elimination of child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest as one of its priority areas for the year.