Several years ago a textile mill executive was extolling the virtues of hand-picked cotton from Ecuador. The problem, he said, was he just couldn’t find enough of it.
He may still be searching — Ecuador produces 21,000 bales annually. But if the search proves fruitless, perhaps his company can buy cotton from Uzbekistan — if it can stand the glare of world opinion.
Some U.S. and European retail stores reportedly are boycotting Uzbekistan cotton to protest the drafting of “tens of thousands of students, some as young as 12 years old,” to harvest the central Asian country’s crop.
For some of my peers, this is a born-50-years-too-soon moment. I spent a lot of Saturdays and after school time helping my grandfather pick his cotton in the 1950s. I was lucky. Many of the predominantly black and some “white” schools in my region dismissed for cotton picking for six to eight weeks in the fall.
I don’t remember having any choice about picking cotton, although I confess I enjoyed spending the 3 or 4 cents per pound I earned. Uzbek students reportedly are paid the equivalent of 2 to 3 cents per kilo or far less than most of the people picking cotton in the United States received 50 years ago.
Besides being paid little, students work 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, according to reports from the International Labour Rights Forum. Those reports say children are poorly fed and suffer from heatstroke and infectious diseases resulting from unsanitary working conditions.
Among those reported to be boycotting Uzbek cotton are Wal-Mart, Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Target, and the Gap. But that hasn’t stopped textile mills in China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and South Korea from buying $1 billion worth of cotton from the Uzbekistan.
At least one of those chains has said it imports up to 75 percent of its merchandise from Chinese companies. A cynic might say the boycott is more public relations gesture than a serious effort to stop the use of child labor.
Uzbekistan isn’t the only country that’s been accused of exploitation. Some U.S. firms got burned a few years ago when reports surfaced of children working in Chinese textile mills. Given the Chinese government’s propensity for public relations gestures, the younger siblings could still be toiling away in those factories.
Child labor can be a matter of survival. The CropLife Foundation recently announced a program aimed at helping farmers in Africa learn how to use herbicides. The reason: Farm laborers, mostly women and children, are forced to spend hundreds of hours chopping weeds from food crops.
I decided years ago that those who rattle on about the quality of hand-picked cotton or rail against herbicides have never had to spend a day performing the exhausting, mind-numbing labor of hoeing or picking cotton or pulling corn. Technological advances have opened up tremendous opportunities in this world, especially for people like me.