Written by 17 h 41 min Labor rights and Modern slavery, Strategic litigation

DEVCOT and forced child labor in Uzbekistan

The Facts… 

Uzbekistan is the world’s 5th largest producer and third largest exporter of cotton.  The cotton industry in Uzbekistan is completely controlled by the state, which centralizes all production and which is the only buyer the local farmers can sell to.  This industry is the source of numerous problems: besides the damage it causes to the environment by its intensive irrigation, the Uzbekistan cotton industry relies systematically on child labor, despite the fact that this is prohibited by Uzbek law.  Consequently, children sometimes less than 5 years of age, are pulled out of school in order to ensure that the cotton gets harvested for periods as long as three months in working conditions which are extremely arduous and which are regularly denounced by the International Labor Organization:  heavy sacks of cotton, long distances to travel, exposure to toxic substances, unsanitary living accomodations, physical harassment by the farmers, etc.  As a way of dealing with this problem, numerous companies (C&A, Tesco, Walmart, etc.) are refusing to manufacture products with cotton coming from Uzbekistan.  But many  companies trading in cotton, such as the French company Devcot SA, have nevertheless long continued to source the Uzbekistan cotton industry.

The Litigation…

 On October 25, 2010, SHERPA and its German partners (ECCHR and UGF) gave an extrajudicial deposition (called a “specific circumstance”) against the Devcot SA company before the French National Contact Point (NCP) for a violation of OCDE Guidelines for Multinational Companies:  by importing Uzbek cotton, Devcot was, in effect, contributing to the perpetuation of a generalised system of forced child labor in Uzbekistan.

SHERPA is relying on the new version of the Guidelines which, since they were updated in May, 2011, include a chapter entitled “the Rights of Man,”  reflecting the United Nation guidelines pertaining to the rights of man and businesses.  These guidelines charge multinational businesses with the obligation to respect the rights of man regardless of where the businesses carry out their activities.  Furthermore, the Guidelines sstate that the business has a duty, in the framework of its activities, to avoid being the cause of incidences which may negatively impact the rights of man or contribute thereto, and to deal with these incidents when they arise.  Businesses must endeavor to avoid contributing to the violation of human rights which they may become aware of, whether the country in which they are operating recognizes these international guidelines or not.

The French NCP will agree to hear the complaint on February 10, 2011.

In September, 2012, the French NCP rendered its fnal statement in the Devcot matter.  Important step forward: the NCP acknowledges that any trade involving forced child labor will constitute a violation as set forth in the OCDE Guidelines.  The NCP also reminded the multinational companies that they are responsible for their chain of suppliers and urged the Devcot company to exercise greater vigilance over its business partners with respect to the Guidelines.

The NCP’s decision in the Devcot matter is important in two ways:  First, it illustrates the forward progress that the reform of the Guidelines has made in light of the fact that under the older version, only the direct use of child labor was considered to be a violation while sourcing from partners that use children was not.  But even more important it underscores the responsiblity of businesses with respect to their chain of suppliers, an obligation that SHERPA wants to extend beyond the Guidelines.

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