Conservative MP 'promoted cotton trade linked to child labour'

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A Tory MP has been accused of drumming up support for the controversial Uzbekistan cotton trade campaigners claim is linked to child labour. Lucy Dunne reports

Activists say Peter Lilley, the MP for Hitchen and Harpenden, promoted Uzbekistan's cotton industry by inviting companies to an international cotton fair held in the Uzbek capital Tashkent last autumn.

Lilley, co-chair of the Uzbek-British Trade and Industry Council (UBTIC), wrote to members informing them that at the VIII International Uzbek Cotton and Textile Fair, held in October, “participants will enjoy an opportunity to sign contracts for Uzbek cotton, set up long term cooperation in cotton trading as well as to be familiar with the quality of Uzbek cotton...”

In the letter, passed to The Ecologist, Lilley also highlighted a further Uzbekistan business fair coinciding with a UBTIC meeting being held in Tashkent.

There is no suggestion Lilley acted improperly. 

Campaigners argue that the annual state-controlled Uzbek cotton harvest is reliant on child labour and are stepping up pressure on international clothing manufacturers and retailers to source cotton from elsewhere.

Joanna Ewart-James, from Anti-Slavery International, said: “It is shocking for a British Member of Parliament to promote Uzbekistan’s cotton industry, which is known to rely on the state-sponsored forced labour of children and adults. The UK government has a responsibility to ensure British companies respect human rights and therefore by sending a message that Uzbekistan is open for ‘business as usual', not only does it fail to do this, it makes the government complicit to this crime."

When contacted, Peter Lilley referred the issue to the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) who in turn referred the matter to UK Trade and Industry (UKTI). UKTI is the government agency tasked with helping UK businesses in overseas markets.

A UKTI spokesperson said: "UKTI supports British companies to export their goods and services and works to attract foreign investment to the UK. The Uzbek-British Trade & Industry Council (UBTIC), co-chaired by Rt Hon Peter Lilley MP and the Uzbek Minister of Foreign Economic Relations, Investments and Trade, is sponsored by UKTI to facilitate trade and investment between both countries.

"UBTIC brought to the attention of potentially interested companies the VIII International Uzbek Cotton and Textile Fair. There was no intention to endorse forced labour and the Council tries to ensure that ethical concerns are clear to UK businesses."

In relation to human rights in Uzbekistan, an FCO spokesperson said: “We have long-standing concerns about the use of forced labour, particularly child labour in Uzbekistan during the cotton harvest. We therefore welcomed Uzbekistan's ratification of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conventions on the Minimum Age of Employment and on the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour. We urge the government to fully implement these conventions. There is evidence that the Uzbek authorities are working to try to reduce the gap between legislative measures adopted and their practical implementation.”

Anti-Slavery International says that in 2012 hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children in Uzbekistan were forced to work harvesting cotton. Activists who spoke out on the issue were arbitrarily detained and threatened, claim the campaigners, who have targeted clothing giant H&M over the issue. The cotton trade is believed to be worth an estimated US$1 billion annually to the Uzbek government. 

Useful links:

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