The European Union is mulling ways to expand its textile trade with Uzbekistan, a major cotton supplier. Rights activists are lobbying hard against the ratification of EU trade measures, asserting that adoption would encourage the continuing use of forced child labor in the Central Asian nation.
The European Council approved an amendment in February to the EU’s Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with Uzbekistan, extending customs and tariffs breaks to Tashkent and opening up European markets to Uzbek cotton. The European Parliament has yet to ratify the amendment.
At a hearing of the parliament’s International Trade Committee on June 21, the trade provision came under attack from civil society activists, who assail Tashkent for pressing tens of thousands of school-age youths into service during the planting and harvesting seasons.
“Such cooperation [with Uzbekistan] suggests that Europe is open to business with everyone whatever the terms of that business,” said Joanna Ewart-James, Supply Chain Program Coordinator at Anti-Slavery International. “Ninety percent of Uzbek cotton is picked by hand, with almost half being picked by state-sponsored forced child labor. Uzbekistan is not a country with which we should be doing business and clearly not with the cotton and related sectors.”
Ewart-James added that teachers and parents in Uzbekistan who complain about the deployment of child labor battalions in the cotton sector are often threatened with dismissal from their jobs. Meanwhile, children who resist are sometimes beaten or expelled from schools, or warned that their grades will suffer.
A British member of the European Parliament (MEP), Catherine Bearder, who sits on the International Trade Committee, described the use of children to pick cotton in Uzbekistan as “penal servitude on a massive scale.”
“To pass [this amendment] would clearly send the wrong message about what the EU stands for, the rights of people that we trade with,” Bearder continued. “By reserving our decision on this agreement we send a clear message that we are watching.”
Uzbekistan’s ambassador to the EU, Bakhtiyar Gulyamov, was invited to the International Trade Committee hearing, but did not attend. The European Parliament is due to vote on the amendment later this year.
During her appearance before the committee, Ewart-James called attention to Uzbekistan’s refusal to allow inspectors from the United Nation’s International Labor Organization (ILO) to monitor the cotton harvest. “Only once the situation is assessed and understood can a suitable and sustainable solution be developed and implemented,” she said. “Despite Uzbekistan being double footnoted, which is ILO speak for a serious case, Uzbekistan has still failed to take its obligations seriously and invite in an ILO mission.”
According to Ewart-James more than 70 companies have already taken action to protest against the use of forced child labor to collect cotton. “These companies would welcome the support of the European Parliament as they try to reduce the risk to which their supply chains are exposed to illegal and abhorrent practices such as those found in the Uzbek cotton industry,” she said.
Speaking on behalf of the European Commission, Holder Standertskjold-Nordenstam, defended the amendment, saying it is not designed to leverage human rights improvements. He cautioned that turning up the pressure on Uzbekistan could prompt Tashkent to sell its cotton elsewhere.
“There have been calls for the EU to use the PCA amendment as, for want of a better word, ‘leverage’ -- to persuade Uzbekistan to make concrete progress in eliminating the worst forms of child labor in the cotton sector. … [But] the protocol gives us no economic leverage to work with,” he said.
An EU investigation into the practice of forced child labor in Uzbekistan could backfire, he warned, noting that “the Commission relies on cooperation, transparency and dialogue as more efficient tools to achieve its objectives.”
Standertskjold-Nordenstam downplayed the notion that the EU’s adoption of a hard line on Uzbek child labor, including the imposition of sanctions, could bring about desired changes. “Close cooperation aimed at eradicating child labor might be the better option,” he added.
For any close-cooperation strategy to work, however, Tashkent would have to believe Brussels means what it says. At present, some MEPs say, Uzbek leaders are unlikely to take potential EU threats seriously. Nicole Kiil-Nielsen, a French MEP, told the International Trade Committee that the EU’s inability to secure permission for an ILO mission to visit to Uzbekistan, despite being aware of the “massive use of child labor in Uzbekistan,” shows that Tashkent believes the EU’s human rights agenda to be a “paper tiger.”
“We have an opportunity to make our [Uzbek] counterparts understand that they have to listen to what we are saying,” she added.
Deirdre Tynan is a Bishkek-based reporter specializing in Central Asian affairs.