Are your cotton garments slave free?

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

Why do you ask, I hear you wonder? The answer will become clear in a minute, I should think. The other question, which probably will not be answered as easily would b e as to whether you know where the cotton for your cotton clothes and other cotton products comes from. In the latter case most manufacturers may not wish to disclose it or may not know themselves.

One of the biggest cotton growing area of the world is in the “Stans” of the former Soviet Union and every autumn, children in Uzbekistan are forced to work in the cotton harvest, for little pay. German companies are among those profiting from this violation of human rights.

In Uzbekistan, summer vacation begins in mid-September, when the heat subsides. It lasts about two months, but many schoolchildren hardly even see their parents during this time. Instead they are required to serve their country by picking cotton.

An obscure ritual dating back to the former Soviet command economy unfolds during the autumn harvest season in the Central Asian republic, when President Islam Karimov mobilizes the masses. About 2 million schoolchildren are then ordered to work in the fields and harvest the "white gold," as cotton has been known since the days of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. In addition to natural gas and gold, cotton is one of the most important sources of hard currency for the Uzbek elite. The price of cotton is currently at its highest since trading began 140 years ago.

Not that the young cotton pickers see much of those profits and children as young as ten, and younger even, are forced to work in the fields. The work starts at 7am and ends when evening falls. The children were told to meet their quota of 10 kilograms per day. If they don 't they get beaten.

Not that any of the NATO countries and those of the European Union would say anything about and against this happening. After all we need Uzbekistan's military bases from which to enter Afghanistan without having to go through Iran, which would not work, or through Pakistan which can be difficult.

While some human rights abuses nearly caused European countries call for a boycott of Uzbekistan the Germans on the other hand went there with a huge trade delegation.

Retailers like C&A and Wal-Mart are now attempting to not stock clothing that contains cotton from Uzbekistan. But it is difficult to trace the path of Uzbek cotton, which dealers mix with cotton from other countries.

Cotton farming is also immensely harmful to the environment. Irrigation for cotton farms is the main reason the Aral Sea in western Uzbekistan has shrunk to only one tenth of its former size. The 24 species of fish once found in the lake are now extinct. Unemployment in the region is now at 70 percent and cotton farmers are paid but one third of the export price. The rest ends up in the coffers of the president and the ruling elite and, more than likely, banks such as the German Commerzbank which finance the trade.

In Germany, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) is filing a complaint against Stadtlander, a large European cotton dealer with over €100 million ($138 million) in annual sales. For years, the company has had an office in Tashkent, where it maintains good relations with the Karimov government.

Stadtlander, however, paints a different picture of Uzbekistan. In recent years the company sponsored a celebration of the Uzbek spring festival at the Bremen Cotton Exchange. Plov, an Uzbek stew, was served and Uzbek dancers in glittering dresses performed, while large posters depicted Islam Karimov's vision of the cities of the future. It could have been a TV show broadcast straight from Uzbekistan.

So, how ethical is are your cotton clothes and other products. Where does the cotton come from. Time to think and look at an alternative source. Fairtrade may be the answer.

Yes, Fairtrade cotton costs, maybe, a little more but you can then buy with a clear conscience, more or less, that the products are free of slave and child labor.

While, maybe, children working in the fields, and elsewhere, should not always (it always used to be thus also in our countries and that not even that long ago) as it may help them and their families as long as the conditions are right, the way it is done all too often is not a good way for sure.

Fairtrade cotton is the answer and Fairtrade cotton is having its birthday soon.

© 2010