25 October, 2012

Uzbekistan Changes its Forced Labour Policy on Cotton...Somewhat

Ibrat Safo and William Kremer, "Doctors and Nurses forced to pick cotton," BBC World Service, October 15, 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19931639.

According to the article there is an international boycott of Uzbek cotton harvested with forced child labour, labour done under government direction, and to address this, now the government of Uzbekistan mandates forced adult labour.  

It's unclear from the article why mechanical harvesters stopped being used in Uzbekistan after 1991 with the breakup of the Soviet Union.  The article cites government promotion of hand-picked cotton as a superior product with less chaff compared to mechanically-harvested cotton.  However, Cuba went through its Special Period* at the same time, adjusting to the sudden loss of the Soviet-subsidized oil and imported machinery on which Cuba's agriculture depended.  I wonder about the possibility that Uzbekistan's policy of hand-labour may have been a defensive move to keep the cash crop going and not a strategic tack to improve their product.  But that's speculation.  And if true it still wouldn't make forced labour necessary or good.

There are other interesting aspects in the article, such as people paying to have someone else pick their quota, reporters prohibited from interviewing harvesters in the country, the interruption of medical services during harvest, interruption of schooling for older teens and college students, and the high proportion of Uzbek cotton in world exports (ten percent).

I buy cotton clothing from two companies.  One is a member of the Organic Trade Association, whose standards "require that operators not use forced or involuntary labor," page 47.  The other company has a social responsibility commitment to not source cotton from Uzbekistan knowingly until that country stops using forced child labour to pick cotton.  I'd be happier if it said something about all forced labour.

*The Special Period is described briefly in a CBC article here, in the side bar under the heading 1991.

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