This post was co-authored by Bama Athreya, President, GlobalWorks Foundation and Judy Gearhart, Executive Director, International Labor Rights Forum.
School's out for children across the country and we are pulling out our cool cotton T-shirts and shorts. Yesterday on World Day Against Child Labor, we might keep in mind that in some countries, when school's out, the hard labor begins - and in one notable case, it is to pick the cotton that goes into our summer clothes.
This past week, the International Labour Organization (ILO) held hearings on forced child labor in Uzbekistan. The Uzbek government denied the problem. The ILO, however, was not convinced; its Committee on Application of Standards called for the government to accept a high level investigative mission. The Committee's decision came after a hearing earlier in the week where employers and trade unions from the US and Europe were strongly aligned in urging for an ILO monitoring mission to take a closer look after the welfare of Uzbek school children.
Uzbekistan is the world's sixth largest producer of cotton, and the third largest exporter. For decades, it has used the forced labor of its schoolchildren to harvest that cotton by hand. Each fall, shortly after the start of the school year, the government orders schools to close and school administrators to send the children out to the fields, where they remain until the cotton harvest is brought in. It is estimated that anywhere from 250,000 to 2 million children each year are compelled to labor in the cotton fields.
The conditions in which the children work are appalling. Children are required to engage in dangerous and often unsupervised work. This has led to numerous injuries and even deaths. In the fields children are supplied with a minimal amount of food, which they often have to pay for, and have little access to clean drinking water. Children that refuse to participate in the harvesting of cotton face retaliation from school administrators, who are under pressure from the government to meet cotton quotas.
Last year, cotton prices worldwide reached historic highs. With cotton prices on the rise, consumers everywhere are likely to face higher prices for cotton garments.
Governments and corporations sourcing cotton should be asking: will the higher prices paid by Western consumers this year indirectly subsidize corrupt and exploitative practices in this sector?
Uzbekistan, with its massive adult unemployment, was and is economically able to eliminate forced child labor. There is some possibility this can happen in the future. Concerned apparel retailers worldwide, mindful of their own company codes of conduct prohibiting the use of child labor, now instruct their suppliers to avoid all use of Uzbek cotton. Over 70 international clothing companies have called for Uzbekistan to end child labor. Along with transnational corporations, some major investors and industry associations have called on Uzbekistan to halt the use of forced child labor.
However, more voices are needed to ensure the government hears this call for change. Consumers and citizens worldwide need to join this call for Uzbekistan to end the abuse of children. We all need to send messages to the Government of Uzbekistan that we won't accept cotton produced with the sweat and tears of children.