A group of American legislators is trying to prod the Obama administration to impose trade restrictions on Uzbekistan because of that country's use of forced child labor in the cotton industry.
The International Labor Rights Forum petitioned the office of the US Trade Representative in 2007, asking it to suspend Uzbekistan from the Generalized System of Preferences program, which allows normal trade relations between the two countries. The office has yet to make a decision on the petition. On December 9, five members of the House of Representatives pressed for resolution, writing a letter to the current trade representative, Ron Kirk, and asking him to act on the matter.
"State-orchestrated forced labor, including forced child labor, is a common practice during the cotton harvesting and weeding seasons," the letter said. "A longstanding pattern of widespread compulsory labor ... should have provided occasion for USTR to question whether the government of Uzbekistan met the labor rights criteria for eligibility.
"The failure of USTR to act on the merits of the petition by revoking Uzbekistan's trade privileges raises troubling questions about the integrity and effectiveness of the review process," the letter said. It was signed by five Democratic members of the House of Representatives: Lloyd Doggett (of Texas), Earl Blumenauer (Oregon), Bill Delahunt (Massachusetts), Jim McDermott (Washington) and Linda Sanchez (California).
The case pending before the USTR has the potential to put the Obama administration in a bind. The administration is in the midst of carrying out a surge in Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan is now one of the main conduits through which supplies for the war effort flow. Over the past year, Washington has carefully cultivated its relationship with Tashkent, largely succeeding in restoring bilateral ties that suffered serious damage following the Andijan events of 2005. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. A move by the USTR to impose trade penalties on Uzbekistan would likely alienate President Islam Karimov's government, with possible adverse repercussions for the Afghan War supply line.
Uzbekistan has repeatedly promised to end the use of child labor, and last year adopted a National Action Plan to deal with the issue. But a report, released this month by the ILRF, said that Uzbekistan failed to honor those commitments and that conditions in the cotton harvest were worse this year than in 2008: "Due to continued international attention to, and criticism of, Uzbekistan's practice of forced child labor, the authorities have sought to minimize the publicly visible evidence of their involvement in the practice this year. Thus they stopped overseeing the safe transport of children to and from the cotton fields. Unless they brought drinking water from home, children were forced to drink unhealthy water from canals and ditches. They ate their food sitting on the grounds beside the cotton fields, where pesticides and herbicides are widely used. There were no medical personnel attending to their health needs and the physicians themselves have also been mobilized to pick cotton. This year it was nearly impossible for children to obtain permission to leave the cotton fields even for reasons of illness or poor health."
The report said that the central government ordered local governments to mobilize children to force them to work in the cotton fields, though these orders were made orally.
The US Trade Representative's office is reviewing the petition, said a spokesman for the office, Nefeterius McPherson, in response to questions from EurasiaNet. "We have received the letter and Ambassador Kirk will be responding," McPherson said. "As part of the review, officials from USTR and other U.S. government agencies have raised the matter with high-level officials of the government of Uzbekistan, including during [Trade and Investment Framework Agreement] meetings held in Washington in October of this year. The Uzbekistan petition remains under review and is being evaluated carefully, as are all petitions concerning GSP beneficiaries' continued eligibility for the GSP program."
The Uzbek Embassy in Washington did not respond to request for comment from EurasiaNet.
The ILRF hopes that the action by the members of Congress will spur the USTR into action, said Bama Athreya, the group's executive director. "It's high time for a final decision to be made on this," she said.
While Uzbekistan is only one of many countries that use child labor in the cotton industry, the ILRF is focusing on Uzbekistan because of the heavy state control of the cotton industry, and because local human rights activists in Uzbekistan have called for a boycott of Uzbekistan's cotton because of the government's use of child labor, Athreya said.
Turkmenistan, she said, has similar problems with child labor in the cotton industry, but "we do not have local allies in Turkmenistan ... and we have not had that same direct call for action from Turkmenistan," she said.
Imposing trade restrictions on Uzbekistan would harm US-Uzbekistan trade just when it is starting to blossom, said Aaron Rose, a Seattle-based business consultant and member of the board of directors of the American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce. The group represents several large companies that do business with Uzbekistan, including Boeing, Case-New Holland and Caterpillar.
Over the last two years relations between the United States and Uzbekistan have grown significantly, Rose said. "The political relationship has warmed very quickly" and that has led to "a very warm and open business relationship," Rose said, adding that the Uzbek government is trying to encourage US businesses to invest there by offering special tax incentives. If Tashkent was to be suspended from the GSP program, "we would see an adverse effect overnight," Rose contended.
The Chamber does not believe that child labor is a problem in Uzbekistan, Rose added. "Our position is, many of these reports are overzealous and inaccurate," he maintained. "We recognize that Uzbekistan, some time ago, had an issue. But the Chamber feels that Uzbekistan has cleaned up its act and respects human rights."
Athreya said Uzbek authorities seemed to use child labor by choice, not out of necessity. "They're not the world's poorest country, they're not starving to death. They had farm equipment from the Soviet time and they didn't maintain it. For that matter, why aren't they using adult wage labor? There is plenty of that," she said.
"By mobilizing kids and having them bring the cotton back, the state has more control to make sure the farmers don't cheat and smuggle the cotton out to sell it at market prices, Athreya continued. "Uzbekistan wants a captive labor force because that maximizes the state's share of the profits."
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.