The Cotton Campaign recently passed an important milestone in the fight to protect children in Uzbekistan from forced child labor: more than 100 companies have signed a pledge to try to avoid purchasing Uzbek cotton. Consumers will recognize a lot of the names on the list—Levis Strauss, Fruit of the Loom, GAP, Ann Taylor, Wal-Mart—comprising many of the largest apparel companies in the world. To date, 124 companies have signed the pledge.
Each fall, the country of Uzbekistan compels hundreds of thousands of school children to leave their classrooms and perform back-breaking labor harvesting cotton. The children typically earn only pennies for their work and experience harsh, uncomfortable conditions. In many countries of the world cotton is harvested with machinery, but in Uzbekistan using school children, college students and adults forced into labor has proven to be a cheap solution to harvest needs and picking by hand results in cotton that can draw top prices. Ruled by a totalitarian dictator, Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan is the only country in the world whose government is compelling the widespread use of child labor for non-military purposes.
For years, the members of the Cotton Campaign, including the National Consumers League (NCL) and the Child Labor Coalition, which NCL co-chairs with the American Federation of Teachers, have applied pressure on companies that use cotton to eliminate their use of Uzbek cotton until Uzbek leaders allows the International Labour Organization to monitor the cotton harvest and until Uzbekistan eliminates exploitative child labor and forced adult labor from the harvest.
According to reports coming out of Uzbekistan during this fall’s harvest, more schools have remained open this year and the use of child labor has fallen somewhat. Apparently, Uzbekistan has allowed some younger children to focus on their studies by turning to increased forced labor of older kids in the 15- to 19-year-old range. Advocates see this as a sign that pressure is beginning to work. And having 100 companies sign the pledge to avoid Uzbek cotton sends a powerful message to Uzbekistan: you must do more to eliminate the use of forced labor and child labor and you must let the ILO monitor your next cotton harvest.
One obstacle that companies face who have signed the pledge is ensuring that no cotton actually enters their supply stream—despite their intentions to keep it out. Advocates and companies are working to make certain that the pledge is meaningful and that cotton does not pass through so many middlemen that its country of origin is no longer recognizable.
NCL and the Child Labor Coalition encourage consumers to look at the list of companies that have signed the pledge and if their favorite company is not yet on the list, let it know that it should be.