In a landmark statement coming from a European official, Markus Löning, Germany’s federal commissioner for human rights, has demanded that Uzbekistan cease using child labor in harvesting cotton, and has called for inspections to be carried out by the International Organization of Labor (ILO).
Uzbekistan has come under increasing pressure in recent years for its continuing reliance on forced child labor to help gather the country’s all-important cash crop, cotton. Tashkent is a signatory to two ILO pacts, known as Convention 182 and Convention 138, which together seek to eliminate the use of child labor. President Islam Karimov’s administration also issued a decree in 2008 pledging to eliminate the practice in Uzbekistan. However, human rights monitors have found abundant evidence that children continue to be forced out into Uzbekistan’s cotton fields to participate in the harvest.
In a statement issued November 9, Löning called on Uzbekistan to honor its commitments. “I am greatly concerned by continued reports of child labor being used in cotton harvesting,” the statement said.
“Uzbekistan is obliged under international agreements to combat child labor,” the statement continued. “I therefore call on the Uzbek government to clear up these accusations and finally let observers from the International Labor Organization into the country.”
Löning’s statement followed a complaint brought by the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, seeking to draw attention to the Uzbek child labor issue by using procedures developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The complaint specifically targeted seven European corporate buyers of Uzbek cotton. More than 65 of the world’s largest retailers, including Walmart, The Gap, Marks & Spencer, and Target are boycotting Uzbek cotton largely because of the country’s use of up to 2 million school children, as well as university students, to harvest the crop each fall.
Löning’s comments constitute perhaps the sharpest European Union criticism to date of Uzbekistan’s child-labor practices. ILO experts have so far not been allowed to verify Uzbekistan’s compliance with its treaty commitments.
In 2008, an investigative report prepared by the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), found that children as young as six experienced an interruption to their academic routines and were press-ganged into service in the cotton fields. “The government of Uzbekistan has claimed credit for ratification of the ILO conventions prohibiting child labor, but has taken no serious measures to engage in work with the ILO to develop an action plan, or even undertake a credible assessment of the problem, the ILRF report said.