Brussels, Belgium, 4 October 2011: European Union (EU) lawmakers have rejected a trade deal that would have made it easier for Uzbekistan to export textiles to Europe, citing objections to the country’s continued use of child labour in its cotton harvests. The European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee unanimously voted against the inclusion of textiles in the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA), a document that has formed the basis of trade in most other goods between the EU and Uzbekistan since it came into force in 1999.
The deal would have lowered the tariffs on EU imports of Uzbek cotton, which currently represent one-quarter of its exports. Uzbekistan is the world’s fifth-largest producer of cotton and its third-biggest exporter. The committee wants international organisations to verify that child labour is not used during the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan before considering an inclusion of textiles. It supported changes to the wording of the agreement stipulating that the inclusion of textiles “should only be put to the vote by Parliament after international observers, and in particular the International Labour Organization (ILO), have been granted by the Uzbek authorities close and unhindered monitoring.”
The author of the motion, French MEP Ms Nicole Kiil-Nielsen, explained that she was pleased with the result of the Parliament vote on 4 October, saying: “The European Union cannot accept such a practice and the issue is now very clear without any ambiguities and I am very satisfied with that.”
The text also requires the ILO to confirm that concrete reforms have been implemented and achieved substantial results “… in a way that shows that the practice of forced labour and child labour is effectively in the process of being eradicated at national and local level.” The government of Uzbekistan has long denied the use of forced labour, claiming that cotton-picking is a family farm activity. Tashkent has also signed ILO Convention No. 138 on Minimum Age of Employment to try and assuage Western allegations.
International organizations have however continued to express concerns about the practice and Tashkent bars independent international observers in the country during the harvest season. It is estimated that anywhere from 200,000 to 2 million children, aged 9 to 15, work in Uzbek cotton fields from September until December. The Uzbek state controls most of the country’s cotton production, and there are persistent claims that schools are forced to send children into the cotton fields to provide cheap labour.
“The children do not work in small family businesses,” Kiil-Nielsen said. “It is really organised, forced labour. They transport the children, they put them on the cotton fields and [the children] live at the site in deplorable conditions.”
Source: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Rikard Jozwiak