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Uzbekistan: Roundtable Highlights Use Of Child Labor In Harvesting 'White Gold'

Cotton brings in $1 billion in annual exports for Uzbekistan (ITAR-TASS) As the second-biggest exporter of cotton in the world, the government of Uzbek President Islam Karimov is keen to keep the cotton industry thriving.

But members of the international Coalition Against Forced Child Labor In Uzbekistan -- comprised of three European NGOs -- say they hope to show how prevalent child labor is in harvesting Uzbek cotton. The coalition was one of the organizers of an antichild labor roundtable held in Bremen, Germany, on April 3, timed to coincide with the 29th International Cotton Conference, also held in Bremen.

Shahida Yakub heads the London-based Uzbekistan Initiative group, a member of the coalition. "The main goal of this event is to attract the international community's attention to child labor in Uzbekistan," she said. "We also hope that certain pressure will be put on the Uzbek government to force it to stop using child labor."

As the world's second-largest cotton exporter, Uzbekistan has used children to pick cotton since the Soviet era. But the practice continued after the country gained independence in 1991 and joined several international agreements that ban child labor. Human rights activists say as much as half of the country's "white gold" harvest comes from child labor.

Cotton is a major source of hard currency for Uzbekistan, bringing in around $1 billion in annual exports, giving Uzbek authorities a great incentive to continue using children to harvest and help produce cotton, activists say. That's why they're calling for international corporations to boycott Uzbek cotton in order to force officials in Tashkent to change their policy on child labor.

Boycotts Of Uzbek Cotton

Since the first appeals were voiced in November 2007, several European clothing chains decided to stop buying Uzbek cotton or clothes made from it. Finland's Marimekko and Estonia's Krenholm were the first. They were joined by Swedish retail giant H&M, Gap, Tesco (the world's third-largest retailer), Britain's largest retailer Marks and Spencer, as well as Debenhams, another British clothing chain.

The move was significant as it could shake Uzbek cotton's position in Europe -- where one out of every four garments is made of Uzbek cotton.

Vasila Inoyatova heads the Uzbek human rights group Ezgulik, which has conducted research and several surveys on the use of illegal child labor and campaigned against the practice.

"Of course, Uzbek officials should not be indifferent to this [boycott]. And they are not. [But] I don't believe a boycott from one or two companies will have a great impact on the Uzbek cotton industry and force Uzbek authorities to change their practice," Inoyatova told RFE/RL at the roundtable. "But if there are many more such companies, the problem is going to catch global attention."

Past Denials Of Wrongdoing

Activists like Inoyatova say the Uzbek cotton industry, which involves some 450,000 children, is especially lucrative for the ruling elite, such as President Karimov's family and friends. They say the boycott will not affect ordinary Uzbeks.

Neither authorities in Tashkent nor Uzbek officials participating in the international cotton conference in Bremen this week have reacted to the roundtable. However, Uzbek officials have in the past denied the use of forced child labor in the country's agricultural sector, saying Tashkent adheres to international conventions on child labor and "forbids any form of child labor in cotton fields and other agricultural sectors."

The state-controlled Uzbek media has remained silent on the subject. An Uzbek journalist who spoke to RFE/RL on the condition of anonymity says official control of the media does not allow journalists to write about child labor in Uzbekistan.

"Uzbek journalists who work for state broadcast and print media know perfectly well that they cannot cover this subject at all," he says.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service correspondent Shukhrat Babajanov contributed to this report from Bremen

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