WASHINGTON — Several industry trade groups, the International Labor Rights Forum and other human rights groups sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday imploring her to take stronger action against forced child labor in the cotton industry in Uzbekistan.
“We are disappointed to note that despite strong language in the interim report, the annual ‘Trafficking in Persons’ report (released Monday)…fails to downgrade Uzbekistan to Tier 3 despite the clearly documented and egregious nature of the country’s state-sanctioned and widespread use of forced child labor,” the groups said in the letter.
Among the industry groups signing the letter were the American Apparel & Footwear Association, National Retail Federation, Retail Industry Leaders Association and the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel. Separately, a broad list of apparel brands and retailers, beginning in 2008, made a pledge to stop using cotton from Uzbekistan. Among them are American Eagle Outfitters Inc., Columbia Sportswear Co., Gap Inc., Hanesbrands Inc., Levi Strauss & Co., Marks & Spencer, Nordstrom Inc., Target Corp., J.C. Penney Co., Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Kohl’s Corp. and TJ Maxx, according to the ILRF.
Uzbekistan, which exported 10.7 percent of the world’s cotton in the 2009-2010 season, behind the U.S. and India, according to an ILRF analysis, has been listed by the State Department as a “Tier 2” country in four consecutive years, including the new report. Being downgraded to Tier 3 can trigger economic and military sanctions against a country.
Brian Campbell, director of policy and legal programs at the ILRF, said a new federal statute requires that countries that have been on the list for two years must be automatically downgraded unless they meet three requirements, centering around the key criterion that the country have a written plan with the resources to back it up to address the problem.
The State Department, in its report, noted that the Uzbek government “demonstrated negligible progress in ceasing forced labor, including forced child labor, in the annual cotton harvest and did not make efforts to investigate or prosecute government officials suspected to be complicit in forced labor,” as it concluded the country would stay on Tier 2.
The State Department report said Uzbekistan was not downgraded to Tier 3 because the government has a written plan that, if implemented, would make significant efforts to come into compliance. Opposing the State Department’s conclusion, the coalition said in the letter to Clinton that there appears to be no evidence of a well-funded written government plan.
The coalition pointed to a recent International Labor Organization finding that Uzbekistan’s government had established a tripartite interministerial working group in March for on-the-ground monitoring to prevent the use of forced child labor by schoolchildren during the cotton harvest, but failed to make public any concrete results of the monitoring or the number of children working in the cotton sector.
“Our assessment is that this is purely a gesture designed to avoid a downgrade to Tier 3, rather than a genuine effort to actually address the problem,” the coalition said.