August 11th, 2008


The search for clean cotton and pure childhood

Halfway through Behind the scenes at Newsnight, a comic video intended to inspire young aspirant journalists, is a scene of staggering (and, hopefully, staged) complacency. The Newsnight team is having its post-programme editorial meeting. The editor congratulates them on the fact that three big stories running throughout the week on Newsnight have been self-generated.

One of these Newsnight exclusives, the editor tells us proudly, had the effect of "changing the way people do their business". Newsnight's journalists discovered that children in Uzbekistan aged nine and up are working to produce cotton which is then sold in the UK. "So we all are wearing clothes containing cotton which children have been forced by their government to pick." Here's the report (part 1, part 2, part 3).

When broadcast by the BBC in October 2007, this report prompted Tesco, Marks and Spencer and The Gap to ban from their stores all clothes containing cotton made in Uzbekistan. Finland’s Marimekko, Estonia’s Krenholm and Sweden's H&M announced a boycott in November. Various campaigns -- like this video, White Gold -- have been urging consumers to boycott any clothes containing Uzbek cotton. They present it as a simple ethical imperative: don't help contribute to "one of Central Asia's most brutal regimes" by buying cotton from a state-controlled cotton industry which uses enforced child labour.

Things are, however, somewhat more complicated, and the ethics are more nuanced. People in Britain might think they're avoiding the exploitation of children by boycotting anything "Made in Uzbekistan", but they aren't. They may, instead, be kicking away the economic ladder to the ethical luxuries they now enjoy. Clean cotton -- cotton which doesn't involve enforced labour or poor working conditions -- is as difficult to come by in developing countries as it was in our own history (we, of course, used African slaves to pick our cotton during our own "developing" age).

Boycotters aren't necessarily helping Uzbek farmers. "It is not obvious," says the Fair Trade Association of Australia and New Zealand, "how boycotts might tangibly contribute to the improvement of the lives of farmers and workers. If the intention of a boycott is to make the Uzbek government reform, but it does not, then conditions on the ground for farmers might worsen as economic hardship bites. Or, as some predict, the government may simply just sell its cotton elsewhere, to the growing markets of Russia and China. Another twist is that some central Asian industry sources are claiming that Uzbek cotton boycotts are being pushed by Russian influences, keen to hurt Uzbeki industry for political purposes."

The CIA factbook adds another possible motivation: "Uzbek authorities have accused US and other foreign companies operating in Uzbekistan of violating Uzbek tax laws and have frozen their assets." And the Uzbek government themselves have another theory: "It is known that nowadays the Uzbek cotton drives out other producing countries' cotton on the world market and the [agitation] around it has appeared immediately after lifting of the state subsidies for cotton producers in some... well-known countries, that makes them less competitive in the global market". Western companies are forced, in other words, to deal with Uzbekistan, and they don't like it.

But, as Petra Kjell of the Environmental Justice Foundation points out in the video above (filmed at Berlin Fashion Week last year), wherever in the developing world cotton is made (and 99% of cotton farmers live in the developing world, producing 75% of the world's cotton), children are used to pick it. In Egypt one million children work picking cotton, in India hundreds of thousands of child workers do it. All three cotton-producing Central Asian republics -- Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan -- use students and forced labour during the two months of the year when cotton is picked, according to Andrew Stroehlein, director of media and information at the International Crisis Group.

Meanwhile, Fair Trade cotton represents, at present, less than 1% of global cotton flows (source: Fair Trade Foundation), and the global organic retail cotton market accounts for just 6% of all cotton traded (source: Organic Exchange).

Not only is it very difficult to trace the sourcing of cotton back through an incredibly complex supply chain, there's also a complicated labour ecosystem arranged around cotton. Bangladesh -- where twenty million people depend on the garment industry for employment -- buys 65% of its cotton annually from Uzbekistan. Garment exports account for a stunning 75% of Bangladesh's annual export income. Ban-and-boycott people need to consider that, in addition to not-necessarily-helping Uzbekistan, their bans and boycotts actively harm Bangladesh.

Uzbek children aren't taken out of school to harvest cotton -- the schools are closed for the two month cotton season and the children are set to work alongside their teachers (and even doctors and nurses) getting the harvest picked. It's a collective national effort supervised by the police, an obligation. But it isn't enough for us just to ask ourselves if we'd send our own privileged and protected children unpaid into the fields: we have to look at the specifics of life in Uzbekistan to understand why it happens.

Over 60% of the population lives in rural areas, where cotton-growing is the main industry. Almost 50% of the Uzbeki population is 16 or under. Cotton production is by far the biggest industry in the country; the whole economy is based on it, and wealth flowing in from cotton revenues has raised Uzbek life expectancy three to six years higher than that of surrounding Central Asian states, despite widespread environmental damage (toxic chemical sprays, the Aral Sea dried up, dust storms). These kinds of conditions haven't been prevalent in the UK since the 19th century -- a time when we, too, sent children up chimneys and down mines, thereby eventually achieving the kind of society which has the luxury of banning these activities by law.

"I think boycotting Uzbek cotton is an overreaction," says someone called Alanna on a bulletin board. "Considering all the ghastly forms of child exploitation you find in the world, condemning the Uzbeks because children harvest (along with their familes) seems excessive. I lived in Uzbekistan for 4 years, and many of my friends had childhood memories of picking cotton. They hated it, but it was only a few weeks every year, and they were not mistreated."

This April, Uzbekistan signed into law the ILO Minimum Age convention, which allows light work to be done by people as young as 13, but tries to raise the minimum working age in all signatory countries. It's unlikely that child labour will cease overnight, but it's likely to take less than the century or so it took in Britain, which didn't sign up to the ILO minimum age convention until 2000.

Meanwhile, those who still want to ban Uzbek cotton might want to extend their ban to all cotton. That's the only sure way to avoid cotton "dirtied" by the picking hands of children. They might also want to invest whatever spare money they have in Uzbek industries they do approve of, because history tends to show that better conditions generally come with better economies.