In the cotton fields of central Asia, forced and child labour and other human rights abuses are common, according to a recent report from the International Crisis Group.

The respected non-governmental organisation claims that conditions for child workers in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are particularly bad in its 28 February report, “The Curse of Cotton: Central Asia’s Destructive Monoculture”.

The cotton industry in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan “contributes to political repression, economic stagnation, widespread poverty and environmental degradation”, says the think tank, which has a reputation for excellent research.

The ICG says schoolchildren are regularly required to spend up to two months in the cotton fields in Uzbekistan, and child labour is still in use in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

“Without structural reform in the industry, it will be extremely difficult to improve economic development, tackle poverty and social deprivation, and promote political liberalisation in the region,” says.

The group points out that central Asian cotton is traded internationally by major European and US companies, Western banks finance its production, and the final product ends up in well-known clothes outlets in the West.

The ICG wants the International Labour Organisation and Western governments to push European and US firms that source from the region to do more to tackle the rampant child labour.

The think tank also suggests that international financial institutions lending to projects and companies operating in the region should create a “joint working group”, including private foreign investors, to “co-ordinate strategies” to improve the lot of the central Asian cotton worker.

Legal assistance and human rights protection for farmers “including advocacy at government level” is needed to raise the bar, the ICG says.

But companies working in the region say the scale of the child labour and forced labour problems are such that they can do little on their own.

Break time

As recently as October 2004, a minister with Uzbekistan’s public education department admitted that at least 44,000 senior pupils and students had been mobilised to help pick the country’s cotton.

Turkmenistan’s dictator, Saparmurat Niyazov, recently announced his intention to ban child labour. Human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch express some hope, but note that he is prone to making such announcements and then failing to do anything about them.

While Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov, has been known to have political opponents boiled alive, Tajikistan is still recovering from a civil war, which it plunged into almost as soon as it became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991.

In the five-year war between the Moscow-backed government and the Islamist-led opposition, 50,000 people were killed and more than one-tenth of the population fled the country. The current Tajikistan president, Emomali Rakhmonov, is a former cotton farm boss.

Don’t know, don’t care?

Companies involved in sourcing cotton from middlemen in the region include Cargill, the American commodities giant. A spokesman for the company is reported to have said recently that if there is child labour in Cargill’s supply chain it is sure it is merely because families need help in the fields.

How it knows this without audited results is not clear, and even if it’s true, that’s not the point, say NGOs. Some argue that benefiting from any labour by youths under a certain age is unethical, no matter what the circumstances.

Other firms involved in the industry in the region include US-based Dunavant Cotton, ECOM USA and Paul Reinhart, a Swiss firm.

Thomas Reinhart is a director of Paul Reinhart, one of the five largest cotton-trading companies in the world. He says his company has no major disagreements with the ICG report and agrees the ICG is “well informed” on the subject.

Reinhart says that when it comes to cotton sourcing, his firm’s activities vary country to country. “In Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan we buy from government departments” he says, adding that firms have no choice: it’s either that “or you don’t buy it”.

With regard to having an influence on labour standards of the downstream workers, he says cotton firms have little influence on the government. “Short of boycotting the country there is not much we can do,” he says.

‘Robust’ vetting

In Tajikistan, Reinhart selects its suppliers, local cotton export firms who buy from farmers, “by working with the more serious ones and trying to avoid the more crooked ones”.
Reinhart says the firm tries its hardest to select export suppliers who do not cheat the farmers. After all, he says, “an exporter who will cheat farmers will also cheat me”.

Reinhart is trying to establish relations with independent farmers groups, supported by the Swiss foreign ministry, to foster independent co-operative farms.

But Reinhart acknowledges that such projects represent a minority of cotton farmers, and that his firm does not audit the farms where the cotton comes from.

“As far the farms go, that is very difficult. They are not our direct suppliers,” he says.
The firm does not have official policies on labour standards for its suppliers. “We do not have formal papers, but we do tell them that certain ways of doing business are not acceptable,” Reinhart says.

He argues that the cotton industry is very different from, say, the clothing industry. His firm employs only about 200 staff worldwide. “We are not Nike or Wal-Mart,” he says.

A soft touch

By far the largest firm to source cotton from central Asia is Cargill, based near London and in Liverpool, and in the US.

The firm’s corporate citizenship report from 2004 fails to mention either supplier auditing or child labour policies, focusing instead on selected, positive “case studies” of the firm’s impact on society.

Francis De Rosa, a spokesman for Cargill, says representatives are in Uzbekistan and “will take this opportunity to discuss issues raised in the report with local authorities and selling organisations”.

“Typically cotton farming is dominated by small family plots, where all of the family participate in the harvest. In Uzbekistan, Cargill and other companies purchase cotton directly from the state,” De Rosa told Ethical Corporation.

Cargill shows no signs of taking a leaf from the clothing industry’s book and trying to work proactively on labour issues in its supply chain.

On the idea of boycotting a country where it is unclear how cotton is produced, Jeff Senne of the Global Compact, a UN ethical business initiative, says it “may well be the right choice if [cotton firms] find they cannot do business in the country without being complicit in human rights abuses or child labour practices”.

In its recent report, the ICG says exploitative middlemen between cotton buyers and farmers are a key problem, and that dissemination of knowledge of their legal rights to farmers in the region by NGOs may be a way forward.

A role for retailers

Since textile manufacturers in the region, which depend on the flow of cheap cotton for their profits, sell to the US, there is a role for American retailers, the ICG concludes. It says: “Major buyers should conduct their own investigation into the realities of their supply chain and seek to improve the terms of trade for farmers.”

There is a need for more attention to human rights and economic rights, says the ICG, pointing out that existing human rights programmes “tend to focus on political parties, civil society activists or journalists”. They say few extend to farmers or small business owners, whose rights are regularly abused and who have “lesser resources than city dwellers with which to defend themselves”.

Corporate funding of NGOs to hand out information on the rights of farmers and worker in the region might be one way companies could help. Such partnerships are increasingly common in other industries. For example, in both Nigeria and Venezuela, Norwegian oil giant Statoil funds an NGO that trains judges in human rights issues.

“Companies committed to sourcing from the region could go a long way by looking at previous examples of collaboration in the cotton sector,” says Pamela Coffey, a child labour expert who works for Development Alternatives, a US firm that implements development projects for global companies and governments.

In India, heightened attention was focused on child labour eradication in the cottonseed industry in 2003 after multinational companies – including Monsanto – formed a joint child labour monitoring effort in collaboration with local civil society.

As to what kind of programme is appropriate, Coffey says: “Companies should fashion a response that isn’t focused exclusively on a negative outcome such as no child labour.

“Firms and the communities they operate in would benefit from proactive initiatives that supplement vocational and technical education and skills of parents. Those are the programmes that can increase the earning potential of families, while decreasing child labour.”
Hans Bederski of the charity Save the Children works in Kyrgyzstan on child labour issues. He says that across the region, wherever possible, companies buying cotton should take firm action.

Bederski says companies should ensure they are buying form farmers who do not employ children. He says the cotton companies could also support children catching up with missed classes because of working. This can be done, he says, by “supporting accelerated learning courses for the children” when they are not working.

Government intervention

Whether reputation-based pressures might be brought to bear on firms sourcing from the region may depend on the ability of newspapers to report on the issue.

Traditionally, coverage by the mainstream Western media of central Asia is poor, and many readers don’t know where countries are or what goes on there.

In Kyrgyzstan, Save the Children says the Union of Agricultural Entrepreneurs has demonstrated willingness to co-operate when the ILO lobbied the government to adopt the Convention Against Worst Forms of Child labour. “Nevertheless,” says Bederski, “the industry itself, the spinning factories, are not reacting at all.” He says many factories are not under pressure to do so as many of them have foreign capital, from Russia, China and Turkey.

Thomas Reinhart believes the cotton companies can have little impact on government policy in the region. Asked if government-to-government pressure is the answer he replies: “Absolutely. The real influence should come from foreign ministries.”

Jeff Senne of the Global Compact agrees in part:

“I agree that correct pressure is government to government,” he says. But he adds: “Pressure must be accompanied by aid earmarked for education and economic development, because if the schools are better funded they will not find it necessary to outsource their pupils.”

Aid can help

Manuela Coletti, a child labour expert working in Tajikistan, says aid agencies may need to look at how they direct aid in order “to address the root cause of child labour, which our research shows is poverty”.

She says there is a great need for mechanisation in the cotton industry. This would reduce reliance on cheap labour, as would diversification of agriculture.

“People are desperate for the income so it also needs a multi-pronged approach of agricultural reform, employment promotion and income generation,” Coletti says. “In our work in rural areas we find that children and school teachers willingly go out and work in the cotton fields as it augments their family income.”

Coletti says education is so devalued by families in the region that it is not seen as a way of improving prospects.

She says, though, that much of the labour is forced, in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
“Cotton picking is largely state endorsed, as it was part of a tradition under the Soviet era when school children and teachers all went out into the fields to pick cotton as part of their duty to the state,” she says.

Sliding backwards

Environmental degradation is also caused by uncontrolled cotton farm expansion, according to NGOs. The Aral Sea, once a prominent feature on maps of Central Asia, has now almost completely disappeared. This is mostly because of irrigation of cotton farms, say environmental campaign groups.

In Tajikistan, things have improved for the people in the past ten years, says Reinhart. “Now it is bad, but before, during the civil war, it was awful,” he says. But for Reinhart, the rest of central Asia is sliding backwards under its dictatorships. “In all the former [Soviet] republics the situation is worse than under Soviet times,” he says.

Fertile ground for terrorism

For the ICG says there is also a wider reason to tackle child labour issues in the region: “If those states, Western governments and international financial institutions do not do more to encourage a new approach to cotton, the pool of disaffected young men susceptible to extremist ideology will grow with potentially grave consequences for regional stability.”

Radical Islam already has a foothold across central Asia. Governments should be concerned that “over-reliance on cotton may play into that”, says David Claridge, a security analyst at the Risk Advisory Group, a consultancy.

“It’s a valid point to raise the issue of over-reliance on one product,” he says, adding: “Diminishing social conditions do tend to lead to radicalisation in one form or another. This can often be Islamic or far left-wing.

“If the ICG are seeing early warning signs, such as a growth in propaganda and grass-roots movements and the growth of violent activities against the state, then it’s a legitimate conclusion to draw.”

The ICG presents some evidence of this and has published several past reports on the subject of radical Islam in central Asia.

It claims in its latest report that in Uzbekistan, for example, poverty is deepening and with it a “sense of hopelessness, especially among young people”.

This social and political discontent, the ICG says, threatens to undermine stability and provides fertile ground for recruitment into Islamic radical groups.

Tajikistan has been accused by its neighbours of tolerating the presence of training camps for Islamist rebels on its territory, an accusation it has strongly denied.

The ICG notes that promised governmental reforms have proven illusory, and “there are signs that the populace is less and less willing to submit passively to ruinous and exploitative economic policies”.

The ICG says Islamic missionaries have found that women in Surkhondaryo, Uzbekistan, surveyed in 2003, were very open to conservative interpretations of Sharia law. “They see it as liberating to stay home for religious reasons rather than be forced into the fields,” the ICG says.

As Quentin Peel noted in the Financial Times on 9 March, “the prospects for reform seem grim”. While the international community has invested millions of dollars in trying to curb drug running across the region, “practically nothing has been done to counteract the negative impact of the cotton industry”.

Improvements in the cotton supply chain that can be effected by large companies buying from middlemen and state agencies may depend on how European and US government agencies, the media and campaigning NGOs respond to this recent report. The ramifications of a poor response may be greater than just more working children.