Last week the United Nations passed its next set of commitments for development, the “Sustainable Development Goals,” for the coming 15 years and added important labor issues that its member states are obligated to prioritize. “This is significant,” said child labor crusader and Nobel Prize Laureate Kailash Satyarthi at the UN Summit, “because for the first time these goals include the issues of child slavery, labor and trafficking, and has brought forth the language to address them.”
Satyarthi, a longtime friend and partner of the Solidarity Center, was one of the featured speakers at a UN Interactive Dialogue, in which dozens of heads of state and UN agencies discussed the new goals. While some governments and international agencies talked up free trade as the key to addressing economic equity and growing inequality, Satyarthi—along with governments such as Sweden, Ghana and the Dominican Republic—stressed a rights-based approach to development and putting workers and their rights first.
Nobel Prize winners Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi talk at the UN General Assembly. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tim Ryan
“A sustainable economy and society can never be built on the foundation of slavery,” he said. “This is a new opportunity for civil society, faith organizations, governments and businesses to build genuine and innovative partnerships to make child slavery history.” Satyarthi also pointed out that the private sector “must shoulder its responsibility for the world’s children” and said that “truly visionary corporate leaders must safeguard children throughout their supply and value chain.”
Guy Ryder, secretary general of the International Labor Organization (ILO), echoed Satyarthi, saying that Goal 8—the creation of decent work—“is a key to the success of all other agendas, which depend on Goal 8.” While the incidence of child labor has dropped by about a third worldwide over the past 15 years, Ryder also called on the UN to not to spare any effort until the world is free of child and forced labor.
The inclusion of commitments to address child labor, slavery and human trafficking was the result of a multiyear lobbying and advocacy effort by the Global March Against Child Labor, Satyarthi’s organization, formed in 1997 to press for ILO Convention 182 against the worst forms of child labor. The convention has since been ratified by most countries around the world. Now the Global March and its allies have succeeded in centering the goal in the global development agenda, and advocates of justice and equity can hold governments accountable for making decent work for adults and ending child slavery the cornerstone for sustainable economic development.
Health care workers in Uzbekistan are toiling in cotton fields and third- and fourth-year university students are now on their way as well, forced by the government to labor in the country’s fall harvest, according to stories compiled by the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights. The nonprofit organization also is highlighting news that minors again may be forced into picking cotton.
Each harvest season, the government mobilizes more than 1 million residents to pick cotton through systematic coercion, “with profits benefiting the government elite rather than the people,” according to a statement by the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of organizations that includes the Solidarity Center.
During the 2014 harvest, the government mobilized more public employees than in previous years, likely to make up for fewer child laborers, according to a 2015 Uzbek-German Forum report. Uzbekistan has cut back on the use of child labor in the cotton fields following worldwide condemnation.
From September through October, many classrooms shut down because teachers are among those forced to pick cotton. Health clinics and hospitals are unable to function fully with so many health care workers also toiling in the fields.
This year, the government of Uzbekistan is expected to make $1 billion in profit from cotton sales, money that disappears into an extra-budgetary fund in the Finance Ministry to which only the highest-level officials have access, according to the Uzbek-German Forum report.
At least 17 people died and numerous people were injured in last year’s cotton harvest due to poor or unsafe working and living conditions. Workers are forced to toil long hours often without access to clean drinking water and typically work without crucial safety and health gear, exposed to toxic pesticides and dangerous equipment.
“Food is not provided. Everyone must bring their own bread and tomatoes,” says one health care worker. “The cotton is very low. In the sand there are a lot of snakes.”
Many employees are threatened with loss of employment, loss of utilities and other public services, fines and criminal prosecution if they do not participate in the cotton harvest. Those who refuse to participate in the cotton harvest may even see their pensions and other work benefits cut.
Uzbek police twice assaulted human rights monitor Elena Urlaeva this year, once in May for documenting forced labor in the cotton fields and again in August for distributing pamphlets explaining laws that prohibit forced labor.
In July, the U.S. State Department boosted the ranking of Uzbekistan in its Trafficking in Persons report, moving it up to the “Tier 2 Watchlist.” The designation means the State Department claims Uzbekistan does not fully comply with the U.S. Trafficking Victims and Protection Act (TVPA) standards but is making significant efforts to become compliant. In its 2014 report, the State Department ranked Uzbekistan as “Tier 3,” the lowest designation that means it does not fully comply with the minimum TVPA standards.
Earlier this year, the Solidarity Center was among 30 global unions, business associations and nonprofit networks urging the U.S. State Department to ensure its Trafficking in Persons report accurately reflect the serious, ongoing and government-sponsored forced labor in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said during a June visit to Uzbekistan that more must be done now to address “the mobilization of teachers, doctors and others in cotton harvesting, and prevent the maltreatment of prisoners.” Dozens of labor and human rights organizations, including the Solidarity Center, had sent a letter to Ban Ki-moon urging him to raise the issue of forced labor.
Nobel Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi led a rally against child labor at the Lincoln Memorial. Credit: Solidarity Center/Jeff C. Wheeler
Saying that “168 million children are producing wealth, producing clothes, producing shoes, the things that you and I use,” child rights advocate Kailash Satyarthi told a crowd gathered yesterday at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.: “We are here to say that we denounce all forms of child slavery, of human slavery.”
Many of the 168 million child workers around the world are forced into slavery or prostitution or serve as child soldiers. Most, Satyarthi said, work in hazardous and even life-threatening conditions. While this number is down from 246 million in the 1990s, Satyarthi said there is still a long way to go.
“Every child should be free to be a child,” he declared. “Every child should be free to love, free to play, free to go to school, free to have a dream.”
Satyarthi called for organizations to work together to end child labor. “I have worked with civil society, I have worked with trade unions, I have worked with teachers’ organizations,” he said. He explained how such organizations are vital to promoting human rights, especially for children. “Companies like child labor because it is cheap, because children can be easily exploited,” he said. “Children cannot form unions, they cannot go to the polls.”
Satyarthi recalled the visions of freedom activists who came before him, including not only Abraham Lincoln but also Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. “I feel pain,” Satyarthi said. “I am angry that we have not been able to pay the real tribute to these men by eradicating slavery.”
He also insisted that child labor and poverty could not be vanquished without serious investment in education. He lamented poorly financed school systems in some developing countries, where funds for education amount to less than three percent of gross domestic product. Children’s education also receives less than one percent of humanitarian aid worldwide, Satyarthi reported.
“We cannot have a just, dignified world without education,” he declared. “My children in the world cannot wait. Freedom must happen now.”
Some 168 million children remain trapped in child labor—11 percent of the world’s child population—even as 200 million youth in 2012 were working but earning less than $2 per day, according to an International Labor Organization (ILO) report released this week.
“Both child labor and the youth decent work deficit are symptomatic of the general lack of sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth in the global economy and in developing economies in particular,” according to the report.
Released in advance of World Day Against Child Labor June 12, the report focuses on the twin challenges of eliminating child labor and ensuring decent work for youth. “Achieving decent work for all will not be possible without eliminating child labor and erasing the decent work deficit youth face,” the report notes.
“World Report on Child Labor 2015: Paving the Way to Decent Work for Young People,” finds that at its core, child labor is about a lack of good jobs for adults—decent work with good wages and social protections that enables parents to support their families.
The report describes a self-perpetuating cycle of low-wage, low-skilled work opportunities that in turn provides no incentive for parents to keep their children in school because they have fewer reasons to delay their children’s entry into work and to incur the costs associated with their children’s schooling. Conversely, increased demand for skill translates into increased investment in education, the report finds.
The report also examines the worst forms of child labor, in which 85 million children under age 18 toil in hazardous work that directly harms their health, safety or moral development. Girls are especially vulnerable to worst forms of child labor, such as commercial sexual exploitation, and to hidden forms of child labor, such as domestic work outside their own homes.
Some 46.5 million adolescents age 15–17 years labor in hazardous work—40 percent of all employed 15–17 year-olds, according to the report.
Among them are child laborers in Ghana’s gold mines who pull the gold ore out of shafts, carry and crush loads of ore and process it with toxic mercury, according to a Human Rights Watch report also released this week.
“Precious Metal, Cheap Labor: Child Labor and Corporate Responsibility in Ghana’s Artisanal Gold Mines,” documents the use of child labor in Ghana’s unlicensed, mines, where most mining takes place. It is estimated that thousands of children work in hazardous conditions in violation of Ghanaian and international law.
Many local gold traders have done little to determine whether the gold they buy is produced with child labor, and regularly bought at unlicensed mining sites, where child labor often occurs, the report finds. The Ghanaian government-owned gold trading company, the Precious Metals Marketing Company, has no procedures to determine whether children have been involved in producing the gold it purchases. It provides trading licenses to about 700 buying agents and trading companies without obliging traders to use any human rights criteria, including regarding child labor, when purchasing gold.
An Uzbek human rights monitor says she was arrested and assaulted as she sought to document the Uzbek government’s forced mobilization of teachers and doctors to clear weeds from cotton fields outside Tashkent, the capital.
Elena Urlaeva, 58, head of the Uzbek Human Rights Defenders’ Alliance, said in an email that she was detained May 31 in the town of Chinaz, after interviewing and photographing teachers forced by government officials to work in cotton fields.
According to Urlaeva, police injected her with unknown sedatives and interrogated her for 18 hours. During the interrogation, the police struck her in the head. While the police held her, doctors probed Ms. Urlaeva in the vagina and anus until she bled, and took X-rays, after accusing her of hiding a data chip. She was denied access to a toilet, ordered to relieve herself outside and photographed nude. The police threatened more physical violence and confiscated her camera, notebook and information sheet of International Labor Organization conventions.
“I have never experienced such humiliation in my life, Urlaeva said. “The police were laughing and enjoying humiliating me.”
Urlaeva also photographed 60 physicians pressed into work in the cotton fields by city hall officials. Kindergarten teachers told her that the mayor had ordered the schools to send them to weed the fields.
Uzbekistan operates what is perhaps the world’s largest state-organized system of forced labor, forcibly mobilizing more than a million of the country’s citizens to pick cotton each fall, as documented by the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights and the Cotton Campaign.
The Cotton Campaign, a global coalition of labor, human rights, investor and business organizations that includes the Solidarity Center, says “the violent response by the Chinaz police reflects an essential element of the government’s forced labor system: the use of coercion—imprisonment, assault, harassment and intimidation of citizens reporting human rights concerns.”
Steve Swerdlow, a Bishkek-based Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, says Urlaeva’s detention on May 31 and alleged abuse while in police captivity represents “a new low by the Uzbek government” and an effort to “brutalize the country’s civil society.”
The Cotton Campaign is demanding the government of Uzbekistan conduct a transparent investigation of Uraleva’s assault, bring to justice the public officials responsible and issue a public commitment to allow independent human rights organizations, activists and journalists to investigate and report on conditions in the cotton production sector without facing retaliation.
At least 17 people died due to unsafe working conditions during last fall’s harvest, in which teachers, medical professionals and students were forced to pick cotton without any time off and with little or no protective gear, such as gloves. Children often had no classes during these weeks because teachers were working in the fields. Clinics and hospitals had few or no medical personnel.
The most recent U.S. Department of Labor’s annual “Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor” placed Uzbekistan among 12 other countries at the bottom of the report’s rankings and one of three, along with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Eritrea, that received the assessment as a result of government complicity in forced child labor. Uzbekistan is also among 23 countries that received the U.S. State Department’s lowest ranking regarding forced labor and human trafficking in 2014.
On March 19, the Uzbek government arrested, detained, deported and banned from the country Dr. Andre Mrost, an international labor rights consultant, whose firm, Just Solutions Network, Ltd., has bid on a contract to implement a feedback mechanism also called for under the terms of the World Bank loans.
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