11 March 2006

Child Slaves to Old King Cotton

By Marguerite Finn

"Jump down, turn around
- pick a bale of cotton !
Jump down, turn around
- pick a bale a day!"

The song recalls the hard life of cotton-pickers long ago but that's all in the past now – or is it?

A disturbing report by the Environmental Justice Foundation is particularly relevant in Fairtrade Fortnight, since cotton has recently joined the growing number of products to be granted Fairtrade Certfication. Cotton producers in West Africa have already been certified to International Fairtrade standards and farmers in India and Peru are working towards certification.

But what about the world's second largest exporter of cotton - Uzbekistan? Uzbekistan exports around 800,000 tonnes of cotton every year. Europe, a major customer, buys US$350 million annually. You might think that the Uzbek cotton industry was a model of modern mechanisation thanks to re-investment by the State in its biggest earner. Think again.

Instead of using machines to harvest the cotton like other major cotton-exporting countries, Uzbekistan's government uses children. Every Autumn, tens of thousands of children – some as young as seven – are drafted in to pick the cotton harvest by hand. They sleep in over-crowded barracks for weeks at a time. They miss up to three months education when they are despatched to the cotton fields, where the 'luckiest' amongst them can earn a meagre three cents for every kilo they pick of a product worth around $1.15 on the global market. Headmasters are issued with cotton quotas and made to ensure that the children pick the required daily amount. Those who fail to meet their target are punished with detentions, beatings, and told that their grades will suffer. Those who refuse to take part face academic expulsion.

In addition to picking cotton, the children are also required to weed the cotton fields and apply pesticides to the growing crop. The chemical constituents are not revealed to the children or their parents. Craig Murray, former UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan, told me: "It is heartbreaking to see small children compelled for months on end to work twelve hours a day in the cotton fields. It is also remarkable that people in the West do not realise that this cotton monoculture is the cause of the destruction of the Aral Sea." His new book reveals the dark underside of the Bush / Blair 'War on Terror' and their support for "one of the most hideous tyrannies on earth".

It not just the children that suffer. Uzbek farmers are locked into a neo-feudal system akin to slavery and prohibited from owning the land they farm. They are forced to sign contracts stipulating that they sell their produce to the state for a price twenty times below the market price. Sometimes they don't get paid for months on end, or are forced to accept containers of low-grade vegetable oil instead. Unable to make a profit, farmers cannot afford to improve their production methods and are caught in a dependency relationship with the state.

The international community is aware of the situation. An assessment by the World Bank classified 30.5% of the rural population (4.9 million people) as too poor "to meet their basic consumption needs". Uzbekistan signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, whose Article 32 recognises the right of the child "to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's education or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development" – which it blithely ignores. Closer to home, Uzbek cotton is sold on the international market through our own Liverpool Cotton Association.

So what can we do?
  • The European Union could suspend cotton-related imports from Uzbekistan until it no longer uses child labour in its cotton production;

  • The UK Government could work with the World Trade Organisation to introduce conditions punishing manufacturers / producers who use child labour at any stage of the supply chain;

  • We could demand that all products containing cotton be clearly labelled with the country of origin of the cotton fibre.

  • We could choose cotton products with the Fairtrade mark.
In 2001, researchers attempted to trace the origins of a pair of jeans on sale in Ipswich UK. Extensive research revealed that the jeans were made in Tunisia using denim produced in Italy and Germany from cotton grown in Benin, Pakistan and Korea. The jeans components had travelled over 40,000 miles before finally ending up in Suffolk!

How about tracing the origins of the jeans in Norwich?