Reports on the retail sector, including apparel sellers, are a staple of January's post-holiday business news. However the last quarter looks to retailers, it has told a grim story about the retail supply chain. In November 2009, the BBC reported that Uzbekistan's fall cotton harvest was gathered, in large part, by children. Boys and girls as young as 11 were forced out of school and into the fields by the Uzbek government, which depends on cotton sales for most of its revenue.
Child labor is sadly common in much of the world, but Uzbekistan – the third largest producer of cotton in the world – presents an especially egregious case of a national industrial policy founded on the conscription of children.
Western Fashions and Uzbek Cotton
Approximately 75% of the world's clothing imports are for European and North American consumers, according to World Trade Organization data cited by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF). In a September 2009 Los Angeles Times op-ed, Sen. Tom Harkin noted that many major apparel makers and sellers have committed to boycotting Uzbek cotton, but in a multinational marketplace that is hungry for cheap fiber, a boycott by end users is not enough.
Despite international outcry, and the Uzbek government's 2008 signing of International Labor Conventions against the practice, this fall's harvest brought clear evidence that children continue to produce their nation's cash crop. (An Uzbek activist said he was beaten for providing evidence to the BBC for its report.)
If US and EU consumers drive the world's apparel market, and western retailers are boycotting Uzbekistan, then who is buying this year's cotton crop? Evidence suggests that China is stepping up as a buyer of Uzbek cotton, which means that boycotted material could potentially enter western markets via Chinese exports.
Without buy-in throughout the global supply chain, activists' efforts may not be able to prevent child-labor-sourced cotton from reaching the world's consumers.
Forced out of School for Five Cents a Kilo
According to the EJF, Uzbekistan is the world's third largest producer of cotton, and its industry depends on an abundance of forced, nearly-free labor. Adults have historically refused to work the fields due to the inability to earn a living wage. Human rights advocates have claimed that children are compensated approximately 5 cents per kilo picked, and that wage may be reduced if the cotton picked is damaged, or to pay for the child's room and board.
Uzbek Government Signs, Ignores Labor Conventions
Beginning in 2007, more than 25 major Western retailers, including Wal-mart, The Gap, and JC Penney, initiated a campaign to ban the use of Uzbek cotton in their products. Uzbekistan responded by signing International Labor Conventions 138 and 182, the conventions upholding minimum working age and prohibiting the worst forms of child labor, in the spring of 2008. As of December 2009, the country had yet to ratify these Conventions.
Uzbekistan also produced a National Action plan last September. The Action Plan, which underlined the existing constitutional ban on labor for children under 16, failed to include monitoring mechanisms to ensure compliance with its own purported standards.
Buying Power and Political Power
In a global textile market, Western retailers' boycott depends on support from other cotton-importing and clothing-exporting nations. A nation's willingness to push back against Uzbekistan seems tied to its bargaining power with both its suppliers and its customers.
For example, in 2008, Reuters reported that US and European firms pledged to boycott Bangladeshi garments made from Uzbek cotton. The report said that Bangladesh relied on Uzbekistan to meet 65% of its cotton demand. Abdul Hai Sarker, head of the Bangladeshi textile trade association, explained the implications of the boycott:
"If we cannot import from Uzbekistan we have to spend at least six cents more for each pound of cotton to import from U.S. sources, which ultimately will add up to 20 percent cost for finishing products," Hai [said]."
Mr. Hai also told Reuters that his nation would press the Uzbek government on its use of child labor.
By contrast, the world's largest exporter has taken a different tack. In December 2009, China's state-controlled Xinhua News Service reported on a meeting of Chinese and Uzbek leaders. The report said that Uzbek president Islam Karimov described China as a "most reliable and trust-worthy friend of Uzbekistan," and that both nations would increase trade in many commodities, including cotton. No mention was made of labor practices.
"Remarkable Network" Must Engage the Middleman
In his op-ed, Sen. Harkin lauded the efforts of non-governmental organizations and socially responsible investors (SRI) to fight against the use of child labor. Their efforts led to the creation of what he called a "remarkable network" of activists and corporations working together to pressure Uzbekistan for change.
Sadly, even this united front is not enough; even Sen. Harkin's demand that Uzbekistan permit labor rights inspection is not enough. End users cannot influence the global supply chain unless all the world's powerful importers and exporters – including China – believe they must meet higher standards of corporate social responsibility. This must be the next goal of the "remarkable network" of global corporations, investors, politicians and activists.