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PRAGUE, Feb 17 2011 (IPS) - The EU is facing accusations of tacitly supporting child labour after its main decision-making body approved a trade agreement with Uzbekistan on textiles – an industry known to involve at least one million child labourers a year.
It has emerged that just days after Uzbek president Islam Karimov’s controversial visit to Brussels last month, the European Council approved a protocol granting various tariff and customs privileges and free access to European markets for Uzbek textiles.
But rights groups are now campaigning against the move which comes amid an expanding boycott of Uzbek cotton by Western countries because of ethical considerations, and despite the fact that Brussels has been repeatedly informed of how the Uzbek textile industry uses raw cotton harvested by the forced labour of children.
They say the approval is a de facto encouragement of child labour that violates international laws on child and human rights.
Rachel Denber of Human Rights Watch (HRW) told IPS: “There are serious questions about how this could have come to happen. It may be a case of brazen cynicism or it may be an example of a very worrying lack of co- ordination within the EU.
“In any case it certainly makes previous statements of concern by the EU over the use of child labour in Uzbekistan ring very hollow indeed. The Uzbeks must be looking at this and laughing themselves silly.”
For more than a decade human rights groups have highlighted state- sponsored use of child labour in the cotton industry in Uzbekistan.
Cotton is one of the Central Asian state’s biggest global exports and its harvesting is a matter of national economic priority.
Uzbekistan is the world’s third biggest cotton exporter, shipping out 850,000 tons per year. Its cotton industry is worth more than a billion dollars annually.
But more than 90 percent of the harvest is carried out by hand and state authorities organize the use of child labour en masse to ensure harvest quotas are met.
Schools, colleges, and universities are closed for months every cotton season under approval of state education authorities. Families who refuse to send their children to pick cotton are subject to intimidation, threatened with the loss of social benefits, gas supply, water, electricity, and their children are threatened with exclusion from educational institutions.
Jean-Paul Delmotte, UNICEF Representative in Uzbekistan, told IPS that as many as “one million children were mobilized” to work in the last cotton harvest.
He said that many of them were aged between 13 and 18 but that “it differs from region to region and some of the children involved can be younger.” Children as young as seven are known to work harvesting cotton.
Groups working in Uzbekistan collecting information on child labour in the cotton harvest say that while parents do not want their children to miss school to pick cotton, some local authorities and groups have actually tried to ensure children are not part of the harvest labour forces.
But UNICEF told IPS that with cotton prices currently at historically high levels economic concerns are often put ahead of welfare.
Delmotte said: “Our research last year showed that while some social actors moved to prevent children from being used in the cotton harvest, because of the high price of cotton at the moment economic figures put (greater) pressure on social actors to make children work.” Tashkent has signed up to international agreements outlawing child labour and has officially said that child labour in the cotton harvest ended in 2008. But UNICEF and other groups claim children were still being forced to pick cotton in 2010.
The Paris-based Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, which has launched a petition to have the agreement rejected by the European Parliament which must formally give its approval, says the EU is now essentially supporting child labour.
In a statement given to IPS, Human Rights in Central Asia said: “This decision sends a political signal to all interested parties that there is nothing wrong in importing textiles from Uzbekistan.
“It was also taken against the backdrop of an expanding boycott of Uzbek cotton and cotton products due to ethical considerations by a number of Western companies.
“Taking into consideration that the textile industry of Uzbekistan uses raw cotton that is harvested by the forced labour of Uzbek children and students, the decision to trade in such textiles can only be interpreted as a silent and de facto encouragement of the practice of forced and child labour that violates the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ILO Conventions on Forced and Child Labour, as well as other norms of international law on human rights.”
When contacted by IPS about the trade agreement the European Council declined to comment.
The European Council decision also comes just days after a controversial trip to Brussels by Karimov during which European Commission president Jose Barroso said that Uzbekistan must accept an International Labour Organisation (ILO) mission to monitor child labour in the country.
Human rights defenders say there are now serious doubts over Brussels’ stance on human rights abuses after it last month introduced sanctions on Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenka’s regime for its violent crackdowns on dissent, yet appears to be turning a blind eye to Tashkent’s continued use of child labour in approving a trade agreement.
“Questions need to be asked about how long this agreement has been in the pipeline. How long ago did negotiations on this begin? These things don’t just happen overnight.
“It also sheds new light on Karimov’s visit to Brussels a few weeks ago. He turns up and the European Commission talks about child labour concerns in his country and then a week later this is approved. It is mindboggling,” Denber told IPS.
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