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NEW YORK, Sep 13 2011 (IPS) - With Fashion Week under way in New York, Milan and London, more than 60 apparel companies from the United States and Europe this week publicly pledged to not knowingly buy cotton that has been harvested by children forced to labour in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan.
Steve Swerdlow, a researcher on Uzbekistan from Human Rights Watch (HRW), says that based on estimates from activists reporting on the ground, 1.5 to 2.0 million children are mobilised each fall to work in the cotton harvesting industry in the country.
While children in most parts of the world are now starting school, in Uzbekistan, they are forced to pick cotton while living in filthy conditions, hungry and exhausted with little or no pay, some as young as 10, for two months each year, rights groups say.
The Uzbek government ratified two International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions on child labour in 2008, but according to the HRW world report for 2011, “no meaningful steps” to implement them have been taken.
ILO’s independent observers have not been allowed into the country to determine whether there is a violation of the prohibition of child labour in the cotton industry. All the United Nations independent human rights experts who have received reports of human rights violations have also been denied access for a decade.
In addition to child labour, U.N. bodies have received information about systematic torture, among many other human rights abuses.
The companies who made the pledge not to buy cotton from Uzbekistan included Adidas, American Apparel and Footwear association, Burberry, Macy’s Inc., and the Walt Disney Company. They vowed to stand by their pledge until the day the ILO is permitted into the country to verify that the practice of child labour has stopped.
Patricia Jurewicz, director of the Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN), coordinated and issued the companies’ pledge. She said that by having large firms that make up a large percentage of the market sign this pledge, it sends a message to the Uzbek government and the international cotton traders that child labour is unacceptable.
“I think the value of the pledge is to bring the industry together so they can work on the issue of child labour together,” she told IPS.
“I think the pledge is the first step. The second step is communicating not only with the factories that sew the clothes but also with the spinners, the persons that make the yarn and textiles at factories and the international cotton commodity traders who sell the cotton to factories,” Jurewicz said.
But some human rights organisations think that the international response to the serious abuses in Uzbekistan has been too weak.
Swerdlow said that the United States and the European Union have shown interest in engaging with the Uzbek government on security issues, but that the response to the human rights situation has “too often taken a back seat”.
“We believe that Uzbekistan’s international partners like the United States and the European Union should speak out more publicly and more often on the Uzbek > government’s abysmal human rights record and attach concrete policy consequences when improvements are not made,” he said.
Washington is currently trying to secure an expansion of an accord that permits the U.S. and its NATO allies to ship supplies and equipment to their forces fighting in Afghanistan through Uzbekistan.
With President Barack Obama committed to withdrawing 30,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of next summer and NATO planning to withdraw all its forces by 2014, the Pentagon wants to ensure that Uzbekistan will permit supply lines to run through its territory in both directions.
Swerdlow told IPS he documented human rights abuses in Uzbekistan for Human Rights Watch, until the Uzbek Justice Ministry denied him a work permit late last year and shut down HRW’s office in the country.
Since the Andijan massacre in Uzbekistan 2005 when the National Security Service fired at protesters, and according to some outside sources killed hundreds of people, HRW and other NGOs and media have been barred from operating in Uzbekistan.
“We keep in touch with activists who report on the child labour with great courage and risk to themselves. Until the Uzbek government allows ILO to perform an assessment mission on the ground there will be no evidence that the practice has stopped,” Swerdlow said.
Jeff Goldstein is a former Soviet specialist with the Open Society Institute in Washington, now responsible for providing advocacy support for the institute’s programmes in the former Soviet Union and Mongolia.
Goldstein said that a number of companies have made pledges like this before, but with the start of this year’s harvest, he believes it is a good time to repeat it.
“I think it is very good that so many brands have indicated that they don’t want source cotton from Uzbekistan because of the child labour. I would obviously like more companies to join in and that the combination of this pledge from the companies and IMG’s cancellation of Gulnara Karimovas (the daughter of Uzbekistan’s president) scheduled show in New York will bring the attention to more companies, and that more will agree not to buy cotton from Uzbekistan.”
“Time is right to make a change, and demand a change. Consumers do not want children to pick the cotton in their clothing,” Jurewicz said.
The RSN is a project of As You Sow, a non-profit that promotes corporate social responsibility through shareholder advocacy. RSN addresses human rights violations and environmental destruction in the supply chains of consumer products at the raw commodity level.
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