Dozens of companies including Wal-Mart, Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Target, and The Gap have already joined a boycott of Uzbek cotton over the issue of the exploitation of children. Yet a number of Western companies remain who are willing to do business with Uzbekistan.
This month, ECCHR, joined by partner organizations Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights of Germany, Guido Ehrler of Switzerland and Sherpa of France launched complaints against seven cotton dealers from Switzerland, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, hoping to illustrate that the problem of child labor in Uzbekistan is a challenge for all of Europe. They alleged that these corporations had violated OECD guidelines by purchasing Uzbek cotton harvested in part by children. Uzbekistan is the world's fifth largest cotton producer and annually earns half a billion U.S. dollars from its cotton harvest, much of it sold at the international cotton fair to foreign companies.
Human rights groups have received numerous reports from Uzbekistan's provinces confirming yet again this year that despite legislation barring forced child labor passed by Uzbekistan in 2009, school-children are still taken from classes and forced to work picking cotton. The conditions of work are hard, as the children perform manual labor for long hours, often exposed to pesticide, and often have to spend nights on farms, with inadequate food and living quarters.
The companies targeted in the ECCHR complaint are Paul Reinhart AG (Switzerland), ECOM Agroindustrial Corp Ltd. (Switzerland), Devot S.A. (France), Otto Stadtlander GmbH (Germany) and three UK-based companies. (The British companies are evidently not being named at this time while lawyers sort out the implications of British libel law for the report.)
Dr. Miriam Saage-Maasz, Program Manager for Business and Human Rights at ECCHR told EurasiaNet that her organization and its partners want to try using both legal and quasi-legal tools such as the OECD procedure to target EU companies that trade in Uzbek cotton. The group cooperates with a larger cotton campaign seeking to bring attention to the plight of the Uzbek children. As the ECCHR's report explains, the action is not merely to expose individual "black sheep" among corporations, but to illustrate that many European companies are supporting and profiting from forced child labor, and that this could change, as many companies have also joined the boycott.
A company ECCHR has focused on in particular is Otto Stadtlander of Bremen, a large European cotton dealer with over $138 million in annual sales. "Stadtlander has had a long-standing relationship to Uzbekistan," says Saage-Maasz. The management of Otto Stadtlander has ignored ECCHR's inquiries for more than a year, and also failed to reply to Der Spiegel's inquiries, the German news site reported.
The launching of the ECCHR's complaint was covered by ARD TV in Germany, as well as Der Spiegel and other publications in Germany and Switzerland.
So far, the OECD itself has not commented, since it has a lengthy process whereby first the company targeted in a complaint is contacted and asked to make its case, and then given a chance to enter into mediation and improve its conduct.
"We will go through the whole mediation process of the OECD complaint, and will confront the companies with our demands," says Saage-Maasz. "Hopefully, they will agree and join the boycott [of Uzbek cotton]," she added. The OECD has no means of imposing sanctions.
Recently, Germany quietly renewed its agreement with Uzbekistan to lease the Termez air base which is used to bring German troops and supplies into Afghanistan. Asked if the need for cooperation with the Uzbek government for the sake of the base might affect the question of addressing child exploitation in the cotton industry, Saage-Maasz said that the German government is simply very interested in good relations with Tashkent. "The German government is actively supporting any trade or investment in Central Asia, particularly in Uzbekistan," she explained.
This year, Uzbekistan announced that it was going to focus more on developing its domestic market and plans to invest more in the national textile industry, the government web site gazeta.uz reported. Could this be a sign that the global efforts to boycott Uzbekistan's cotton could be starting to have some effect?
"Not sure," says Saage-Maasz -- and indeed, it is difficult to measure the impact of such boycotts at this stage. With a cotton shortage this year due to floods in Pakistan and China, and the world cotton price going past $1.00 a pound, more than 300 companies eagerly participated in the Tashkent international cotton fair October 13-14, and more than $500 million in deals were signed in the two-day event, the Uzbek government announced. Uzbek officials have denounced the boycott as merely a stunt engineered by competitors.
At least 40 percent of Uzbekistan's cotton is purchased by Russian companies and the remainder by traders in Western companies, China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates. The human rights campaign does not yet have a handle on how to address cotton commerce and consumer awareness in those countries; for now they are starting where they can easily make a difference: at home, where free media and access to multilateral bodies can provide them a hook to make their case.