CHILD LABOUR: EU to end trade preferences for Uzbekistan amid child slavery concerns

[15 December 2011] - European parliamentarians have voted overwhelmingly to reject the reduction of textile tariffs for Uzbekistan until the International Labor Organization (ILO) is given access to the country to examine extensive reports of forced child labour. 

Members of the European Parliament voted this morning 603-8 to send the textile protocol to the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) between the European Union and Uzbekistan back to the European Commission.

In the text of the resolution, the European parliamentarians "[s]trongly condemn the use of forced child labour in Uzbekistan" and "[u]rge the Uzbek President Islam Karimov to allow an ILO monitoring mission into the country to address the issue of forced child labour practice."

The MEPs further specify support for the ILO's request for "a high-level tripartite observer mission that would have full freedom of movement and timely access to all locations and relevant parties, including in the cotton fields, in order to assess the implementation of the ILO Convention."

Finally, evidently mindful of how such missions to closed societies run by authoritarian regimes can be manipulated and sidetracked, the parliamentarians spell out further conditions:

...Parliament will only consider the consent if the ILO observers have been granted access by the Uzbek authorities to undertake close and unhindered monitoring and have confirmed that concrete reforms have been implemented and yielded substantial results in such a way that the practice of forced labour and child labour is effectively in the process of being eradicated at national, viloyat and local level.

In October, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament voted unanimously against the inclusion of the textiles protocol in the PCA. The vote prevented a lowering of tariffs on EU imports of Uzbek cotton, which make up at least 25 per cent of Uzbekistan’s exports. 

Then in November, the European Parliament's International Trade Committee also refused to give consent to the trade agreement unless the ILO was allowed to enter Uzbekistan to investigate conditions and confirm that the problem of child labour was being concretely tackled.

The London-based Anti-Slavery International spent a year gathering 13,072 signatures through and other campaign sites, persuading pop singer Ricky Martin to endorse the effort, and ethical fashion and consumer bloggers to link to their petition.

The campaigners hand-delivered the package of signatures to MEP Catherine Bearder, a Liberal Democrat, on December 6.

The vote signifies a new-found resoluteness on the part of European legislators to fight forced child labour and trafficking by attacking corporate profits. Without the tariff break, European cotton traders would presumably be discouraged from importing more expensive cotton -- which they had purchased in the first place because it was cheaper on the world market.

Some 60 companies and a trade association pledged not to source their cotton in Uzbekistan this year.

Yet the de-facto boycott of Uzbek cotton seemed to do little to dent business at the annual Tashkent International Cotton Fair, where record sales were made (although in less volume). No Western trader appeared to be buying the cotton, and in their absence, companies from Russia, China, India and elsewhere were picking up the slack. 

The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) attempted to use an international complaints procedure via the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to try to compel cotton traders like Cargill to suspend their purchase of cotton. While the ECCHR was unable to get a ruling to halt purchases, the effort resulted in a call by the companies for further credible investigation of allegations of child labour and a pledge to revisit the issue next year.

Thus, today's European Parliament vote adds some teeth to the effort to gain validation for the issue of forced child labor and also the international community's push to get Tashkent to admit the ILO to the cotton fields.

Despite promises to end the practice of exploiting school-children, local government officials have continued to condone and tacitly encourage the practice, due to record prices for cotton combined with a scant harvest in some drought-ridden areas. The Uzbek government created its own monitoring agency to track child labour, but it has been inactive. 


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