Uzbekistan’s prime minister, Shavkat Mirziyayev, has issued an order to ban the use of child labour during the country’s 2012 cotton harvesting campaign.
But the ‘ban’ has been met with scepticism in various circles, as similar edicts have been issued in the past and, according to NGOs, have not had a verifiably marked effect.
This year’s order, announced on 11 August, has been communicated to all schools in the country, which is one of the world’s largest exporters of cotton.
Conscious of pressure from western companies such as Walmart and Tesco that have ended supply contracts over child labour concerns, Mirziyayev has ordered that children should remain at school throughout the cotton harvest, which begins in September. He has also instructed the Uzbek Prosecutor-General’s Office to keep a close eye on the situation.
However, Uznews.net, an exiled media organisation that is critical of the government, says that while farmers typically try to pick cotton only with the help of adult cotton pickers in the early days of the harvest, they soon revert to using children – and classes are often suspended across the country so that they can then move into the fields.
It said most people in the country, which derives about 60 per cent of its export earnings from cotton, ‘do not take the prime minister’s instructions seriously’ and regard them as ‘eyewash’ for foreign consumption.
UZnews.net also pointed out that the Uzbek government has again refused to admit cotton harvest monitors from the International Labour Organisation into the country this year, even though Uzbekistan ratified the United Nations Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour in 2008.
Wide-scale use of child labour in Uzbekistan has led many high profile western buyers to boycott its cotton, but after initial optimism that such pressure would bring about change, it appears the country’s main response has been to shift to selling more in Asian markets.
In 2000, Unicef estimated that 23 per cent of children in Uzbekistan aged between five and 14 worked in the cotton industry. However, the Uzbek government has since brought in new rules stating that anyone under the age of 15 can no longer be engaged in any employment.
Wal-Mart has said it will not buy again from Uzbekistan until it is able to independently verify that the government’s action is effective. Other companies that have stopped sourcing from the country include C&A, Gap, H&M, and Marks & Spencer.