The argument over whether to hit white-ruled South Africa with trade bans and sanctions may seem academic these days, but in the 1970s and ’80s this question fueled endless debates on college campuses and in legislatures across what was then called the First World. One side screamed of the hypocrisy of democratic, freedom-loving nations doing business with the apartheid regime; others said penalizing white-owned South African companies would only end up hurting their workers, the very people the sanctions were supposed to help. Those arguments were still raging, I suppose, up until the end of the apartheid era, and what the scholarly consensus may be on the effectiveness of sanctions, I have no idea (if any readers do, I’d be glad to hear from them).
I was reminded of those old debates the past few days as the Uzbek cotton question made one of its fairly rare appearances. Regular readers may recall a TOL editorial on the widespread practice of child labor in the Uzbek cotton fields. Uzbekistan is a major producer of the crop, so several years ago activists were encouraged by the decision of several big Western retailers to boycott purchases of Uzbek cotton. Several major U.S. clothing trade groups pledged to “not knowingly source Uzbek cotton for the manufacturing of any of our products until the Government of Uzbekistan ends the practice of forced child labor in its cotton sector.”
Nothing daunted, the Uzbek government continued to take children out of school every harvest season to pick cotton, even as it continued to deny the practice, as though those thousands of children had all decided to play hooky on the same day, or rather the couple of weeks the harvest lasts, and stuff bags full of cotton bolls just for fun.
On the urging of the Responsible Sourcing Network pressure group, last month Wal-Mart, Macy’s, Nike and other big American retailers came out in favor of an Uzbek cotton boycott. We shall have to wait and see if the mounting bad press – most of it admittedly, not in the mainstream media – forces Tashkent into some sort of real action. This spring the Uzbeks formed a working group on child labor but are still balking at allowing international organizations to monitor the practice, Central Asia blogger and cotton campaigner Catherine Fitzpatrick reported.
In her informative Choihona blog on EurasiaNet, Fitzpatrick reports this week on efforts to draw major European cotton traders into the boycott. One trader, ICT, seems to be following the official Uzbek line. The company “does not believe that such systematic abuses are adopted in Uzbekistan and for this reason does not accept the request to cease trading,” while “it acknowledges that it is important to avoid any such practices.”
Before you rush out to the neighborhood Wal-Mart to stock up on adult-picked cotton garments, though, consider this: if a retailer obtains finished garments from a factory that got all or some of its cotton from ICT, how to know whether, or how much, of that cotton came from Uzbekistan? Who at Wal-Mart is going to take the trouble to trace the cotton back to the field, and is that even possible?