BBC Newsnight: Child Labour and the High Street (Video/Documentary)
Man speaking: It’s not a local family operation, it’s a state-run industry that’s forcing children into the fields to pick cotton.
Man speaking: It’s shipped around the world so I think everybody ends up wearing some of it.
Reporter: A few weeks ago my cameraman and I got into Uzbekistan posing as reporters from a textile industry magazine. We said we were filming for the magazines’ website. We had to lie about who we were in order to get visas because Uzbekistan has closed itself off to the outside world.
Two years (2005) ago President Islam Karimov’s regime put an end to street protests in the city of Andijan by killing hundreds of demonstrators. Scores of dissidents and journalists were thrown in jail. And since then the BBC has been denied the permission to operate there. According to Human Rights Watch, Uzbekistan’s government is one of the most repressive regime to have emerged from the breakup of the Soviet Union. It’s alleged that torture and police custody is wide spread and human rights groups have reported that at least one opponent of the regime has been boiled alive.
(Music in the background) A bit of fanfare before the opening of the cotton fare in Tashkent. A full military band. I had to be very careful about the questions I asked about cotton because the industry brings the country’s elite most of their revenues. And I was about to slip into their premier money making event, claiming I was somebody I was not.
Uzbekistan is the second largest exporter of cotton in the world, so it’s no surprise that buyers from around the globe come here to the cotton conference year after year. They’re here to court the only authorized seller of the commodity in this country – the Uzbek government. Cotton merchants, mainly western companies make deals worth of billion dollars a year with the government despite the fact that human rights groups have reported that forced child labor is wide spread.
The Uzbek government has officially stated that child labor is not allowed and this seems to have been accepted by the global cotton industry.
Man speaking (Terry Townsend): Uzbekistan has reported that cotton is purchased from farmers at world prices, and that child labor and other forms of labour abuse are outlawed in Uzbekistan.
Reporter: This ran counter to everything I have heard about the industry here. I wanted to cross the speaker further. Terry Townsend is the director of a global body based in Washington that advises governments including the UK on cotton issues.
Terry Townsend: Uzbekistan took a pro-active approach to this issues, I don’t remember exactly what I year. I think it was 2001 or 2002, a law was passed here which set out guidelines. Now children still work with their parents on farms, but make sure that the hours are kept during the day time but do not conflict with school, working conditions have to be appropriate and just in general making sure that there were no abuses of children taking place in the cotton industry here.
Reporter: So the situation here isn’t worse than in other countries?
Terry Townsend: Can we turn that off for a minute? I’d have to go off the record to answer that.
Reporter: Townsend didn’t want to go into detail on camera but there were plenty of western business people who were happy to tell us how much cotton they buy each year. None of them have met a grower or mentioned the problem with child labor. They all said they dealt only with the Governments.
Man speaking: I think we are one of the biggest takers of Uzbek cotton . We have been handling between 130 to 150,000 tones.
Second man speaking: in the past year we bought about 100,000 tones.
Reporter: How much do you usually buy here yearly?
Third man: Probably maybe only about 5,000 tones is the contract with the government. But obviously later in the season there is opportunity to buy from other people who’ve already bought from the government. About maybe 10-15,000 tones for the whole season.
Reporter: Plexus Cotton is based in Liverpool and has an office in Uzbekistan.
Third man: I think there’s very few places left in the world where you can buy large volumes in any one go.
Reporter: Do you think the cotton that’s purchased here by Plexus ends up in lot of the clothing that you and I buy on high street in England, in the UK?
Third man: Yes, definitely so.
Reporter: There was other evidence that western companies were making clothing in Uzbekistan out of Uzbek cotton. Amongst the brand names we saw this hoodie from Top Man. So this is made in Uzbekistan.
We’ve done a few interviews and we think that some of the organizers are kind of worried. They were asking me a few questions about the textile magazine that I claim to be representing. Even more worrying is that a woman seems to have recognized me. She’s been in London and she knows a BBC reporter that I know. I told her it wasn’t me and she was mistaken and she seems to have believed me. Hopefully my cover is not blown.
That entire thing is cotton. During the three days of the conference the government showcases the various stages of the cotton industry: from storage to processing. But the one thing that was absent from the guided tour was how the cotton was picked even though we were there during the harvest.
Man speaking (Bill Haskins): They classify this (showing at cotton) as Berichi only.
Reporter: What is that mean?
Man speaking (Bill Haskins): That’s first grade. So that is top quality, which is equal to anything in the world.
Reporter: Bill Haskins has spent over a decade working in Uzbekistan and set up the government’s quality control lab. I was hoping his Uzbek colleagues can help me find out more about the cotton pickers. How much does this bit of cotton cost if you’re going to sell it?
Bill Haskins: Well you’re looking at about 68 cents a pound.
Reporter: And how much is the cotton picker going to get out of that?
Bill Haskins (asking a woman): Don’t know. How much is a farmer going to get?… When somebody picks cotton how much do they get? (Talking to reporter: That’s a bit of a political question).
Reporter: The officials told me that the cotton pickers get 3.5 pence per kilo. If that’s true the government cashes in on a mark of 20 times than what it pays the workers.
In Soviet times the modernized industry meant that much of the Uzbek cotton was gathered by machine. But with the memory of Uzbekistan Soviet past growing dimmer and its access to cheaper machinery drying up, the government is increasingly relying on people to pick the cotton by hand. A number of merchants told me over 90% of the cotton is handpicked.
We’re cutting the guided tour short and want to go into the countryside to see what’s really going on. Hopefully nobody followed us out of the complex back there.
Reporter: We phoned our minder and told him we’re heading to one of the tourist destinations in the South. And then got on a plane to a northern city. We arrived in Khiva, one of Uzbekistan’s most beautiful cities. It’s a popular tourist destination where we hoped we might blend in. Then we drove out to look for the cotton fields.
We’ve been driving down the road for about 20 minutes and all we can see on either side are fields of cotton. Despite the assurance given at the conference that child labor was illegal, here we were, in a field full of school children hard at work.
(Lifting a sack of cotton): That’s pretty heavy.
(In the cotton field): Everybody is pretty curious about us being here. There is loads of children. Most of them have stop working just to have a look at what we’re doing so we don’t want to stay here too long. I did find one boy who was willing to talk.
Boy: We’ve been sent to pick cotton.
Translator (talking in Uzbek): When are you going to school?
Boy: After we’re done picking cotton.
Translator: What date?
Boy: In November.
Reporter: One of the boys told me he was getting paid just two pence per kilo. That’s 40% less than what officials in the capital told me cotton pickers were supposed to be paid. Down the road I met this 9 year old girl. She told me she’s been picking cotton since 8 in the morning and would only return home at sunset. She gets a brief break for lunch. Human rights groups estimated some 400 hundred and fifty thousand children like here are sent out of school and working in cotton fields of Uzbekistan every harvest. So this little girl picking cotton under the scorching sun didn’t seem unusual.
Translator (talking to girl): What’s better, picking cotton or going to school?
Girl: school is good.
Steve Trent (exec. Director, Environmental Justice Foundation): They’ve been denied their education and put into a situation where they’re forced to work. It could be back-breaking work. They’re not paid properly, they’re not looked after, there’s no health and safety. They’re in fields where for example pesticides are being used. This is a big problem for these kids.
Translator talking to girl: Why are you not at school?
Girl: Cotton, it’s for the cotton.
Reporter: Early the following morning we set out to continue our investigation. We went into the school. Although it was a weekday, it was empty of students. We were told everyone has been sent to pick cotton. Then we saw something we were told happened at schools across the country during every harvest. Police marshalling hundreds of children onto buses, bound for the cotton fields. We filmed secretly out of a bag. You can see a row of trucks next to buses being filled with bedding and mattresses that the children will sleep on once they get to the fields. The convoy gets its own police escort. But just as we started filming buses going away we were caught and detained by the police.
We’ve been taken to have our passports looked at. We were held and questioned for three hours. The police said they would confiscate the tapes we’d shot in the cotton fields. While they weren’t looking we switched the tapes and left them blanks. We were warned we’ll be thrown out of the country if we’re caught filming again. So we decided to get the first flight out.
Back in London I wanted to find out just how much Uzbek cotton ends up here. While some of the cotton is made into clothes before leaving Uzbekistan, most of it is exported to the booming garment industry in Asia, by western traders. Bangladesh is the top buyer. I focused my investigation there. In Bangladesh, raw cotton is turned into yarn and then woven into fabric. Then it can be mixed with yarns from other sources or materials before being turned into clothing that is shipped around the globe. The industry claims that it’s this mixing of materials from many sources that makes it impossible to trace cotton back to the fields.
Man talking: This is a paper trail of the supply chain.
Reporter: But one British clothing company that explicitly bans the use of Uzbek cotton in its products, says finding the source of raw materials was as easy as making a few phone calls.
Mariusz Stochaj (Continental Clothing Company Ltd.): I asked our supplier in Turkey to follow the paper trail of the supply chain all the way back to the producer of cotton in the region of Turkey. It took him about three days to send us the documents. I also asked our Indian supplier to do likewise and it took them 24 hours.
Reporter: So I made a few phone calls too. I presented myself as a textile magazine journalist and found two factories in Bangladesh that make clothes for the UK market and so some of their cotton from Uzbekistan. One British company they both said they are producing clothing for is the George brand. Other names were coming up as well: the Delta group with the production capacity of 1,5 million garments per month, said Matalan was its major UK client. 80% of its cotton comes from Uzbekistan and other central Asian countries. The Radiance group which said they used yarns supplied to them by companies using Uzbek cotton makes clothes for Burton. Matalan confirmed that Delta in Bangladesh was one of its suppliers.
Matalan (text): Matalan does not designate where its suppliers supply from….we do not audit the thousands of suppliers to our suppliers, as some simple garments of clothing we take for granted and wear each day, contain up to 50 different components.
Reporter: In the case of Topman, its owner Sir Philip Green confirmed that his company had ordered a trial run of the hoodie we saw at the fair. But said there is no further business with the supplier. Sir Philip who also owns Burton said: “our companies buy garments and do not usually have visibility of the source of the raw materials. We rely on our suppliers to source all raw materials and to cooperate according to our detailed Code of Conduct which includes the statement that ‘child labor must not be used.’ We would not be supportive of use cotton in products where the cotton has been picked in the manner you allege. We are now conducting our own investigation with our garment supplier into the source of cotton fibers used in our garments. This is a complex issue and an immediate boycott might be premature until we have more detail.”
Reporter: ASDA was the only company to come up in our investigation that called for an improvement in working conditions in Uzbekistan.
Woman’s voice: “We’re extremely concerned that child labour may have been used to pick cotton that could have been used in fabric supplied to factories in Bangladesh. And that ultimately this may have been used in making clothes sold by George. We’re calling on other retailers and the UK government to join us in encouraging the authorities in Uzbekistan to take urgent action to improve working conditions in the cotton industry.”
Reporter: But even as, they stopped short of saying they would no longer use Uzbek cotton.
So what about Plexus, the British company with an office in Uzbekistan that told us they buy Uzbek cotton? According to their website the company’s hallmarks are integrity and awareness. And it prides itself on having a great depth of experience and knowledge of the whole region. So when we told them that child labour was widespread in Uzbekistan and enforced by the state Plexus’ lawyers sent us a letter saying their clients we unaware that child labour was taking place in the country. They provided us with a statement.
“Plexus Cotton is a company that places great emphasis on integrity and fairness. We are committed to sharing the wealth we create with our partners, employees and the communities in which we operate. Plexus Cotton currently sources a tiny fraction of its total trade through Uzbekistan. We have been categorically assured by the Uzbekistan Government that the use of child labour by Uzbekistan government is prohibited. If evidence is produced to show that this is untrue, we will immediately cease trading in Uzbekistan cotton.”
Man speaking: The reality is that many companies even don’t know or don’t care or don’t want to know.
Reporter: As consumers we’re told where our clothes are made but there’s nothing on the label to tell us where the raw materials come from. As things stand, there’s no way that we can be sure that what we’re wearing is not a product of this (child labor).