10/28/2008, 00.00
UZBEKISTAN
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Western boycott fails as Uzbek children still forced to pick cotton

Like every year from mid-September to November Uzbekistan shuts down its schools and forces students to pick cotton at very low wages. But whilst Western companies are boycotting Uzbek cotton, South Asian and East Asian companies continue to buy it, turning hefty profits.
Tashkent (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Many US and European store chains are boycotting Uzbek cotton in protest against the use of forced child labour in cotton harvesting. Undaunted Uzbek authorities have not changed such practice but sought instead other markets.

A report by the International Labour Rights Forum and Human Rights Defenders of Uzbekistan slammed Uzbek authorities for drafting tens of thousands of closely supervised, poorly fed and underpaid school students, some as young as 12 years old, to help in cotton harvesting.

It noted that the practice continues despite the fact that in March and April of this year the Uzbek parliament ratified two International Labour Organization agreements, namely the Convention on Minimal Age of Employment and the Convention on Prohibition and Immediate Action for Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour. Indeed Uzbek officials in May drafted tens of thousands of school-age students to help prepare fields during the cotton planting season.

Cotton is one of Uzbekistan’s main exports and an important source of foreign currency, but adults tend to prefer more lucrative and less demanding seasonal work in Russia, Kazakhstan, and other countries.

By contrast, children picking cotton suffer “heatstroke, burns and a variety of infectious diseases from poor working conditions,” the report said. For many school hours are “truncated. And for some periods schools” are “closed altogether to spur children into the fields.”

Parents who try to keep their children in school and out of the fields are instead subjected to official pressure and public humiliation, told that if they do not co-operate their children will be thrown out of school.

Children end up working 10 to 11 hours a day, from 6 am till dusk, seven days a week for less than 3 US cents per kilo, much less than what an adult would make.

Photographic evidence of what the report says has been posted on the Ferghana.ru website. There one can see children carrying baskets full of cotton on their shoulders.

Now several store chains in Europe as well as those “representing 90 per cent of the US purchases of cotton and cotton-based merchandise” have announced their intention to boycott Uzbek cotton, said Rajan Kamalanathan, Wal-Mart's vice president of ethical standards. In addition to Wal-Mart, the list of stores includes Tesco, Mark & Spencer, Target, The Gap, Debhenams, Henne and Mauritz.

However, at the 4th Annual Cotton Fair, held in Tashkent on 14-15 October, Uzbek officials signed deals worth approximately US billion to export 950,000 tonnes of cotton fibre. The chief purchasers were China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates, which will be able to use Uzbek cotton and sell it as part of their own products.

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