Every fall, more than a million children in Uzbekistan are forced to pick cotton, say human rights organizations. Sixty major retailers are taking a stance against the country by boycotting its cotton.
Child workers suffer from hunger, exhaustion and heat stroke
A convention signed three years ago has done little to reduce the systematic use of child labor in Uzbekistan's cotton industry, according to the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights' Director Niyazova Umida.
This fall, between 1 million and 1.5 million children in Uzbekistan are being forced to pick cotton again for two months, Umida told Deutsche Welle. Apart from receiving little or no pay, many will become sick and miss school due to the long hours spent working in the fields.
"'We are driving off to the cotton field at four o'clock in the morning and forced to pick kilograms of cotton everyday,'" Umida quoted a letter sent to a radio station by students.
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Children as young as ten are forced to work, and in some cases parents are threatened with the argument that the refusal to send a child to pick cotton is a political act.
As the world's seventh largest cotton producer, around a quarter of Uzbekistan's exports come from cotton.
However, this year's cotton exports may suffer. Last month, 60 of the world's major retailers, including Walmart, Walt Disney, H&M and adidas agreed to boycott all products known to contain Uzbek cotton.
"The adidas Group has been enforcing the so-called 'work-place standards' for many years, which includes a clear ban of child labor from the entire supply chain," confirmed adidas Group Director for Social and Environment Affairs Frank Henke.
Still, human rights groups are concerned that this doesn't mean that child labor in Uzbek cotton fields will end.
"Such kind of a boycott will not help immediately because there are a lot of other cotton traders - from China, Bangladesh and Pakistan and other Asian countries," Umida told Deutsche Welle.
Lack of international support
An estimated one third of Uzbek cotton ends up in Europe after processing in other parts of Asia. In the end, the effects of the recent boycott may not be more than a statement against child labor by leading retailers. All the same, it could put some pressure on Uzbekistan to take action, Umida said, noting that any criticism from the European Union would be taken seriously.
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"The regime, she said, "wants to have good relations with the European Union and America, so if the criticism from the European Union and especially from Germany was bigger, the situation could be changed."
Human Rights Watch called the EU's position on human rights in Uzbekistan "disappointingly weak" in their 2010 report on the country. There was little condemnation of the country publically and discussions on human rights yield no results.
Germany doesn't fair better. In recent years, the company sent notices to the German government alerting it of its knowledge of child labor going on in Uzbekistan's cotton fields, according to an adidas spokeswoman. But there had been no criticism forthcoming from the country.
The position of the United States is also dubious as far as its relationship with the former Soviet Republic is concerned. In spite of a visa ban on travel to the US for Uzbek officials, the Department of Defense uses routes going through Uzbekistan to supply forces in Afghanistan, according to Human Rights Watch.
Nevertheless, the fight against child labor in the fields is growing along with international pressure, Umida said. Her organization observed last year that some local authorities did indeed try to have the cotton picked without the help of children.
"The situation could change drop by drop," she added.
Report: Chiponda Chimbelu
Editor: Nina Haase