A cross-party group of MEPs has called on the European Commission to investigate whether the EU is subsidising child labour in Uzbekistan's cotton industry.
To coincide with the International Labour Organisation's World Day Against Child Labour (12thJune), MEPs have written to the Commissioner for International Trade, Karel De Gucht, calling on the Commission to investigate how the special trade concessions granted to Uzbekistan by the EU may be affecting child labour in Uzbekistan's cotton industry.
The EU grants special trade concessions to Uzbekistan to encourage the development of its industries. The preferential tariff arrangements (GSP) make it easier for cotton from Uzbekistan to be sold in Europe.
However, it has been reported that Uzbekistan may be breaking the strict human rights clauses that are attached to the GSP. Anti-Slavery International have reported that during the September cotton harvest children in Uzbekistan are forcibly removed from school to work for up to three months. This child labour is used to fill the shortfall in voluntary adult labour. Human rights groups estimate that hundreds of thousands of children are involved each year.
The letter calls on the Commission to withdraw these trade preferences if it finds Uzbekistan is in breach of its human rights commitments.
Catherine Bearder MEP, who sits on the Parliament's International Trade Committee, commented:
"According to reports it does appear that the European Union may be subsidising child labour by granting special trade concessions to Uzbekistan's cotton industry."
"Given the evidence, the European Commission must investigate these reports."
"If it finds Uzbekistan to be in breach of its human rights commitments then the Commission has no choice but to withdraw Uzbekistan's trade concessions."
"Taking children out of school and forcing them to work on the cotton fields is an absolute breach of their human rights. It flies in the face of the international human rights agreements that Uzbekistan and all EU countries have signed up to."
"Europe's trade policy should reward protectors of human rights, not those who ignore them."
Joanna Ewart-James of Anti-Slavery International commented:
"Unless drastic action is taken, this autumn the government of Uzbekistan will force hundreds of thousands of children to abandon their education and pick cotton once again."
"The EU needs to send a clear message that such practices are absolutely unacceptable and implement the GSP rules. By benefitting from these trade preferences, it could be argued that Uzbekistan is being rewarded for committing human rights abuses."
Please find the full text of the letter below:
Dear Commissioner De Gucht,
We, the undersigned, call for the European Commission to open thorough investigation into Uzbekistan's continued benefit from preferential tariff arrangements (GSP), which we believe should be withdrawn in light of evidence of serious and systematic violations of human rights.
Around 90 per cent of Uzbek cotton is harvested by hand with approximately half of all cotton picked by state-sponsored forced child labour. Human rights groups estimate that hundreds of thousands of children are involved each year. Each September the cotton harvest begins. Many rural schools are closed down by government officials as children, some as young as nine, are forced to pick cotton by hand for up to three months in order to fill the shortfall in voluntary adult labour. They receive little, if any, pay. This is an extreme form of child labour, a modern day form of slavery, as children who fail to meet their targets (up to 50kg a day), or who pick a low quality crop, are reportedly punished by beatings, detention or told that their grades will suffer. Children who run away from the cotton fields, or who refuse to work, are threatened with expulsion from school.
Forced labour within the sector does not only affect children. Local administration employees, teachers, factory workers and doctors are commonly forced to leave their jobs for weeks at a time and pick cotton with no additional compensation. In some instances refusal to co-operate can lead to dismissal from work.
We are aware that a joint letter addressed to you and dated 11th April 2011, signed by Anti-Slavery et al, sets out evidence from relevant international monitoring bodies, the basis for which an investigation can be opened under the GSP Regulation.
We look forward to the Commission announcing of the opening of an investigation.
Bill Newton Dunn MEP
Keith Taylor MEP
Cristian Silviu Busoi MEP
Edward McMillan-Scott MEP
Michael Cashman MEP
Leonidas Donskis MEP
Tokai Saifi MEP
David Martin MEP
Bernd Lange MEP
Niccolo Rinaldi MEP
Robert Sturdy MEP
Liam Aylward MEP
Nicole Kiil-Nielsen MEP
Kader Arif MEP
Bart Staes MEP
Catherine Bearder MEP