Forced child labour in cotton production – companies are held accountable
In Uzbekistan cotton is harvested with the aid of government-organised child labour. Every year the Uzbek state summons up between 1.5 and 2 million children for the cotton harvest. Neither children nor families are remunerated for their work and the proceeds remain to the greatest extent with the Uzbek government. Uzbekistan is one of the world’s largest producers of cotton which is cultivated almost exclusively on state-owned fields.
Up to now, cotton traders from all of over Europe profited from the forced child labour in Uzbekistan, among them also companies headquartered in Switzerland, in this way supporting the Uzbek system of forced child labour. But things are beginning to change now: After a lawsuit has been filed, Swiss, French, German and British authorities have now launched a mediation process between the traders and the litigating NGO. Finally, the traders have agreed to adopt measures in order to take positive effect on the situation on site.
In October 2010, the Berlin human rights organisation European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) filed lawsuits with National Contact Points (NCP) in several European countries against seven European cotton trading companies active in Uzbekistan. Since the seven companies have their company headquarters in Switzerland, Germany, the United Kingdom and France it was these countries that were affected.
In spring 2011 the NCP allowed all claims and started a mediation process with the respective companies. In autumn2011, NCS and ECCHR reached a breakthrough in the UK. According to the ECCHR, the two British companies have promised to take agreed on steps in order to influence the situation in Uzbekistan in a positive manner. More information on the measures taken is not available. In addition, the mediation partners have agreed upon remaining in contact regarding the steps taken, planning to assess the progress made after a year with the cooperation of the British NCS.
Mediation process in Switzerland
According to the ECCHR, the agreement with the British NCS paved the way for similar results for the other National Contact Points. The three companies involved in Switzerland were Louis Dreyfus, Paul Reinhart and Ecom Agroindustrial. The report on the mediation process with Ecom, which can be accessed on the NCS Switzerland homepage, shows that the ECCHR met once with persons in charge at the company. In September 2011, a mediator facilitated an exchange of views.
The published report contains little information on concrete and effective measures. It states that both parties agree to take the charges that systematic forced child labour exists in Uzbekistan are to be taken serious. Furthermore, the ECCHR and Ecom discussed on the importance and role of companies, NGOs and governments, and stated that the traders should assume their responsibility and address the Uzbek work situation according to their means. Both parties also developed initiatives which can have positive effects with regard to forced child labour and agreed on certain steps determined on an individual basis.
- Child Labour in Uzbek Cotton Production and the Responsibility of European Corporations
ECCHR, 24 January 2012
- Information by the Swiss National Contact Point
incl. link to the mentioned report on the mediation report with Ecom (in German)
- Credit Suisse and child labour in Uzbekistan
Documentation by the Berne Declaration (in German)
- Staatlich organisierte Kinderarbeit in Usbekistan
Article in the NZZ by Viola von Cramon, 17 February 2012 (pdf, 2 pages in German)
- Beispielhafte Vorgehensweisen bei OECD-Klagen
Article on humanrights.ch, 26 January 2012 (in German)