01/22/2008, 00.00
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Open letter against child labour calls for Uzbek cotton boycott

Human rights activists denounce Uzbek state for forcing pupils to leave schools to pick cotton at low wages. Profits go to politicians. Clothing retailers join the boycott, but the campaign is proving controversial. Teacher tells of her experience.

Tashkent (AsiaNews/Agencies) – In Uzbekistan child labour in the cotton industry has become a “deliberate state policy” aimed at “acquiring extra profits.” In an open letter on 17 January, about 140 Uzbek dissidents and activists have denounced the use of child labour, a practice that goes back to Soviet times, but one that has spread on a ‘mass scale’ since independence with thousands of students taken out of schools in the fall, including students as young as 9, and forced for weeks to pick cottons for little pay in bad working conditions. For this reason the signatories of the open letter call on the international community not to buy Uzbek cotton to put pressure on the government.

Nadejda Atayeva, head of a Paris-based Association on Human Rights in Central Asia, told Radio Free Asia that “efforts to solve the problem inside the country did not bring any success so far.” For this reason various groups made an appeal in November to the European Union and the governments of the United States, Russia, and China, as well as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the World Bank, the UN's Children's Fund (UNICEF), and the International Labour Organisation to stop Uzbek cotton sales and end subsidies.

Cotton revenues are a major source of hard currency for Uzbekistan, with around US$ 1 billion in annual exports. It is especially lucrative for the ruling elites whilst ordinary Uzbeks get very little out of it and would not be affected by a boycott.

Juliette Williams, head of the Uzbek boycott campaign for the Environmental Justice Foundation, a British-based NGO, said that British retailer Marks and Spencer just announced it will no longer buy cotton from Uzbekistan and is telling all its suppliers “to make sure that there is no Uzbek cotton in the production process to make clothes.”

Earlier other international companies had announced that they, too, would stop buying Uzbek cotton, including Britain's Tesco, the world's third-largest retailer.

Western companies are not likely to suffer since they can always rely on supplies from elsewhere like Bangladesh.

By contrast, the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC), a US-based group that promotes the world cotton trade, called the allegations by Uzbek activists "exaggerated" and "absurd."

ICAC said that it was not true that Uzbek children had to breathe in defoliants and pesticides whilst working in the fields.

For their part Uzbek authorities always rejected the charges, saying that the Uzbek law “forbids any form of child labour in cotton fields and other agricultural sectors.”

But Atayeva, a former schoolteacher who was fired from her job in Uzbekistan for refusing to send sick schoolchildren to the cotton fields, said that the “appeal is based on our concern over the fate of Uzbekistan's children, who are deprived of a proper education at the expense of collecting 'white gold’.”

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