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EU Lawmakers Block Textile Deal With Uzbekistan Over Child Labor Concerns

Schoolchildren and women pick cotton in Uzbekistan in late September 2011.
BRUSSELS -- European Union lawmakers have rejected a trade deal that would have made it easier for Uzbekistan to export textiles to Europe, citing objections to that country's continued use of forced child labor in its cotton harvests.

The European Parliament's foreign affairs committee unanimously voted against the inclusion of textiles in the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA), a document that has formed the basis of trade in most other goods between the EU and Uzbekistan since it came into force in 1999.

The deal would have lowered the tariffs on EU imports of Uzbek cotton, which currently represent one-quarter of that country's exports.

Uzbekistan is the world's fifth-largest producer of cotton and its third-biggest exporter.

The committee wants international organizations to verify that child labor is not used during the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan before considering an inclusion of textiles.

It supported changes to the wording of the agreement stipulating that the inclusion of textiles "should only be put to the vote by Parliament after international observers, and in particular the International Labor Organization (ILO), have been granted by the Uzbek authorities close and unhindered monitoring."

The author of the motion, French MP Nicole Kiil-Nielsen, told RFE/RL that she was happy with the result.

"The European Union cannot accept such a practice and the issue is now very clear without any ambiguities and I am very satisfied with that," Kiil-Nielsen said after the October 4 vote.

Seeking 'Eradication' Of The Practice

The text also requires the ILO to confirm that concrete reforms have been implemented and achieved substantial results "in a way that shows that the practice of forced labor and child labor is effectively in the process of being eradicated at national and local level."

The government of Uzbekistan has long denied the use of forced labor, claiming that cotton-picking is a family farm activity. Tashkent has also signed ILO's conventions on child labor and on minimum age of employment to allay Western allegations.

International organizations have however continued to express concerns about the practice and Tashkent bars independent international observers in the country during the harvest season.

It is estimated that anywhere from 200,000 to 2 million children, aged 9 to 15, work in Uzbek cotton fields from September until December.

The Uzbek state controls most of the country's cotton production, and there are persistent claims that schools are forced to send children into the cotton fields to provide cheap labor.

"The children do not work in small family businesses," Kiil-Nielsen said. "It is really organized, forced labor. They transport the children, they put them on the cotton fields and [the children] live at the site in deplorable conditions."

Rights And Realpolitik

The move by the European Parliament to restrict trade with the Central Asian republic is in contrast to a recent move by U.S. lawmakers in Congress to lift sanctions that would bar Washington from cooperating militarily with the Uzbek government.

The sanctions were imposed in 2004 over Uzbekistan's dismal human rights record. But the Obama administration is believed to be seeking a closer relationship with Tashkent in advance of its planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and in light of its souring relationship with Islamabad.

The United States has recently eyed a possible supply route through Uzbekistan, which would replace the southern Pakistani corridor as the main channel for troop transit.

The sanctions waiver looks set to become part of a foreign operations bill that will be voted on later this year.
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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.