Uzbekistan: Rights Groups Urge Europe to Stall on Textile Deal

An international coalition of rights groups is calling on the European Parliament this week to reject a textile trade agreement between the EU and Uzbekistan that they say would fuel the scourge of forced labor in the cotton industry.

A letter address to the European Parliament Committee on International Trade published on Human Rights Watch’s website on November 7 said adopting the textile protocol would be to “ignore strong evidence of the government’s persistent and continued use of forced labour on a massive, nationwide scale in Uzbekistan.”

The European Parliament postponed a decision on the EU-Uzbekistan Textiles Protocol in December 2011 pending further monitoring of labour conditions in Uzbekistan by the International Labor Organization. The parliament acknowledged that the monitoring was intended to address allegations about the use of children and forced labor during the cotton harvest, but it is set to review its decision this week.

That postponement five years ago appeared to have had the requisite effect since the government in Uzbekistan relatively promptly allowed monitoring of its cotton harvests by the ILO. 

A draft report in September from the European parliamentary trade committee signaled its satisfaction. It noted approvingly, citing the ILO’s findings from 2015, that “the use of children in the cotton harvest has become rare, sporadic and socially unacceptable, even if ongoing vigilance is needed.”

There is ample evidence, however, that the reduced reliance on child labor has transferred the pressure onto adults. This does not appear to have been reflected in ILO observations.

“Recent ILO surveys … show that a vast majority of workers participate voluntarily when invited to pick cotton and that people who refuse to pick cotton are only rarely fined,” the European parliament trade committee noted.

That is strongly at odds with the evidence collated by nongovernmental groups.

“Anti-Slavery International, the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, the Cotton Campaign, Human Rights Watch, and the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights have documented how in the first month of the 2016 harvest the mass mobilization of hundreds of thousands of adults for the cotton harvest continues, as have attacks on human rights defenders, civil society, and even two foreign journalists who attempted to monitor conditions in the fields,” the letter circulated by HRW said.

Moreover, advocacy groups argue that the push to mobilize state workers and students is coming from the very top. 

“As in prior years, the forced labor system is organized through a clear chain of command from the top of the government to regional governors and down to administrators of public institutions. The government forces teachers, doctors and other public-sector workers to pick cotton under threat of dismissal. Local government administrations have to meet the production quota requirements. It is at this level where the pressure is brought to bear as regional governors need to demonstrate compliance with the central government’s demands,” the HRW-circulated letter said.

Some desired outcomes set out by opponents of the EU trade deal are for Uzbekistan to discontinue cotton production quotas, which create incentives for mistreatment at lower levels of the production cycle, increase in payment to cotton pickers so as to encourage proper recruitment and investigation into abuses of laws concerning forced labor.

“Entering now into the textile protocol also risks undermining the EU Flagship Initiative on responsible management of the supply chain in the garment sector. Since the introduction of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, more and more businesses have been calling on governments to honor their obligation to protect the rights of workers through introducing and enforcing laws,” the letter to the European parliament stated.

Uzbekistan: Rights Groups Urge Europe to Stall on Textile Deal

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