According to the Global Estimates of Modern Slavery, there are nearly 25 million people in forced labour worldwide, with a further 152 million children subjected to child labour. Many victims of forced and child labour produce goods which end up in supply chains that reach consumers all over the world, including in Europe. The U.S. Department of Labour maintains a list of goods produced with forced and child labour and its 2018 list identifies 148 goods – from shrimp to tea – produced in 76 countries.
A short video produced by the UGF on the development of forced labour cotton in Uzbekistan, particularly the Tashkent region.
The largest government-driven forced labour operation in the world takes place during the annual cotton harvest in Uzbekistan when hundreds of thousands of people are forced into Uzbekistan’s cotton fields to pick cotton. Under various threats, including dismissal, extraordinary taxes and even violence, cotton-pickers are forced to meet onerous quotas which are imposed on them by government officials. Farmers are also coerced into meeting cotton production quotas. Because they lease their farmland from the government, if they fail to meet these quotas they risk losing their land. So great is the pressure put on farmers that many of them take their own lives as a result. While there have been some improvements in the Uzbek cotton industry in recent years (e.g. the elimination of child labour), the problem of forced adult labour remains widespread and systematic.
Some Uzbek cotton makes its way into Europe where, in the EU at least, there is no law to prevent the importation of goods produced with forced labour. In other words, it is perfectly legal to import goods produced with forced labour into the EU. This is a remarkable state of affairs which flies in the face of what experts agree is necessary to eradicate forced labour.
Not only does the EU permit the importation of goods produced with forced labour, in the case of Uzbek cotton, and quite possibly other types of goods produced with forced labour, it is actually encouraging their importation. It does this through the use of what are called “preferential tariffs” – essentially reduced import taxes. Preferential tariffs are typically applied to goods coming from developing countries with the stated aim of promoting trade with – and indeed human rights standards within – those countries. But the EU has been applying these tariffs to Uzbek cotton since 1992, when the forced labour situation was even worse than it is now.
GLAN has teamed up with the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (“UGF”) to take a case in the English courts challenging the fact that the EU is encouraging the trade in goods produced with forced labour. There is evidence of a steady stream of Uzbek cotton textile coming into the UK. A core argument in our case is that the EU has never conducted an assessment of the impact which these preferential tariffs have on the human rights situation in the Uzbek cotton industry, something which it is required to do. We are also arguing that when customs authorities are presented with evidence that particular goods passing under their control are produced with forced labour, they must prevent their importation. This is because customs authorities are under an obligation to act in a way that respects human rights.
By taking this case we and the UGF are hoping to stop the EU from encouraging the trade in goods produced with forced labour and to secure a ruling from the courts that brings EU law into line with the position in the US, where customs officers have an explicit power to stop the importation of goods produced with forced labour.
The EU has recently invited the Uzbek government to apply for a further enhancement of the preferential tariffs which apply to Uzbek goods – including cotton – being imported into Europe. Bringing this case is therefore intended to send a message to the EU that forced labour is still widespread in the Uzbek cotton industry and that the EU must not ignore this.