The title of my previous post, Our Other Perennial Theme, has several layers of meaning. In my fatalism, I consider it perennial not just because I also covered it last year, but because we are likely to continue to cover the issue. That’s what “authoritarian government” means. In other words, if Karimov was the type to be swayed by public opinion, he wouldn’t be where he is today. He may be swayed by economic opinions, but that’s a tougher row to hoe. Unlike poverty or blindness, this is not an unstoppable part of the human condition – a person should be able to imagine a future without Uzbek children picking cotton. Then again, that is something much easier for Americans to visualize than for Uzbeks, in my opinion.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Labor Department included cotton from Uzbekistan on a list of goods produced by forced and child labor. Each year during the three-month harvest, Uzbek authorities shut down hundreds of schools, hospitals and public offices. Along with the children, thousands of teachers, doctors and public administrators are forced into the fields.
The International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) has joined with AFT and a broad range of organizations in the United States and Central Asia to call for an end to forced child labor in Uzbekistan. You can act today to stop this shameful practice by signing a petition here.
All supporters who sign the petition by Oct. 2 will have their names put on a special cotton quilt that will be unveiled at a rally in front of the Uzbek embassy in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 14. To get more involved in this action, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
As a child of Flint, Michigan, I have a pretty personal relationship with labor unions, probably as close as one can be without being an active member. The same people that brought you and I the weekend are trying to muster some political muscle and stop child labor in Uzbekistan. It is a noble goal, though I again assume that it isn’t 100% altruism at work. Their own story again states that children from 6 to 15, and only children from 6 to 15, are responsible for the Uzbek cotton harvest. You might think this is splitting hairs, but that’s just not true. But I admit this is an academic point for those most incensed about this issue. It remains that anyone working in Uzbekistan under the age of 16 is now doing so illegally.
Following in the steps of other retailers and clothes-makers throughout Europe and the United States, Kohl’s voided its Uzbek contracts earlier this month. This company owns more than 1,000 stores in 49 states. It is known as one of America’s 500 largest businesses and one of 30 top sellers of accoutrements.
Allow me to make one point in here, relevant to issue as a whole. Much has been said about Uzbekistan’s ginormous cotton crop, being either number 2, or number 3, or number 6 in the world. Let’s take a moment to do a brain exercise, and then really look at the numbers. First off, how does Uzbekistan harvest its cotton? By employing an army of young people to hand pick the cotton, put it in bags, and then process it back at the collective farm cotton gin. How does the United States harvest cotton? With all-in-one harvesters that drive over cotton fields and leave processed cotton modules in their wake. How will this effect productivity? So, Uzbekistan is definitely not competing with the United States [number later], but what about exporting, not production? Is that really something to be proud of? It implies you are producing more than you need – but don’t Uzbek people wear cotton clothing, also? Why not build more textile factories, and buy their own cotton cheaply, and then sell clothing on the world market, or at least for themselves? The economics make very little sense, and the environmental and health costs are staggering, to say the least.
So, the numbers:
According to the National Cotton Council, the top producers of Cotton are: China [25.3 million bales], India [20.5 million bales], the US [19.2 million bales], Pakistan [11.7 million bales] Brazil [7.2 million bales], Uzbekistan [5.5 million bales], and Turkey [3.2 million bales]. Thus, Uzbekistan is not really in the running for effective and monumental production of cotton, making slightly more than Turkey, and only one fifth of the top producer, one quarter of number two.
To make things more complicated, the leading cotton exporters in the world are actually the US and India, ahead of Uzbekistan, according again to the National Cotton Council. So, if the US is exporting cotton, Uzbekistan is in direct competition with them, and this is one more way for the US Government to protect US cotton farmers. Call me a fatalist or a cynic, but as someone that has spent some time with Uzbeks in Uzbekistan, dated an ex-cotton picker, has written at length about the deplorable aspects of Karimov and company, I’m not trying to defend anything in Uzbekistan. I’m merely explaining why things haven’t changed up to this point, in my opinion.