We investigate and expose environmental and human rights abuses in international product supply chains which due to lack of regulation are prone to poor working conditions, breaches of national and international labour standards, child and forced labour, exploitation and abuse.
Since 2004, EJF has worked to raise awareness of the environmental and human rights abuses in the global cotton industry and to be a catalyst for positive change. Using Uzbekistan as an example of worst-practice in cotton production globally, EJF undertook its first undercover investigation in 2005, resulting in a report, White Gold, and an award-winning film of the same name. Documenting forced labour and child labour and the draining of the Aral Sea, White Gold resulted in high-profile media attention including a BBC1 Newsnight programme.
A follow-up investigation in Uzbekistan in 2008 explored the situation following the Uzbek Government’s signing of two International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions on child labour. The resulting report, Still in the Fields, highlighted discrepancies between the Government’s claims and reality.
EJF has also undertaken investigations in India and Mali, documenting the widespread use of child labour and toxic pesticides in cotton production and producing the reports The Children Behind Our Cotton and The Deadly Chemicals in Cotton. Our Somebody Knows report explained how transparency in the supply chain could be achieved, and was distributed to over 200 retailers.
Our reports and films have been shown to European and US industry, policymakers and consumers, exposing the problems in one of the largest cotton producing countries in the world, and substantiating our recommendation for the mandatory labeling of origin on all cotton products.
EJF worked with over 40 retailers who implemented a ban on Uzbek cotton, including Tesco, C&A, Marks & Spencer, Wal-Mart and ASDA. Since EJF began working on the Commodities Campaign, over 300 international media outlets reported on an otherwise ignored subject.
EJF spurred the development of an international coalition of retailers, investors, labour unions, NGOs and partners in the UK, USA, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden, as well as the International Trade Union Confederation.
In February 2011, EJF took part in a private meeting with Alistair Carmichael MP, the Rt Hon David Lidington MP, Minister of State for Europe and NATO, and Rupert Joy, then British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, to discuss the human rights abuses and environmental degradation caused by Uzbekistan’s state-controlled cotton industry. EJF raised the problem of unsustainable water use in cotton production in relation to the demise of the Aral Sea and the resulting potential conflict in Central Asia.
In 2011, EJF investigated the environmental damage caused by the unsustainable use of water to irrigate cotton fields. Excessive water demands from cotton producers are severely compromising the region’s ability to sustain its natural environment. We investigated the impact of cotton production on the Aral Sea region and the wider threats to political stability in Central Asia.
On Friday 10th October 2014, Tesco, one of the first retailers to ban the use of Uzbek cotton in their supply chain in 2007, made a public commitment to join Target, Walmart, C&A, Marks & Spencer, Ikea and H&M as signatories to the Responsible Sourcing Network’s Cotton Pledge. They have renewed their commitment to sustainable and equitable cotton production by signing the pledge not to source cotton from Uzbekistan, where forced labour is rife in cotton harvesting.
Our 2006 White Gold report and film exposed the endemic use of forced child labour in the annual cotton harvest in Uzbekistan, which was unique for the scale of forced child labour. Hundreds of thousands of children were physically forced annually to work in the fields undergoing arduous work for little or no pay, at threat from physical violence and dangerous chemical pesticides, and denied their school education.
This autumn, young children are absent from the cotton fields for the very first time and are instead at their school desks. Children under 16 have not been forced en masse by the Uzbek government to pick cotton this year. Our local partner UGF (Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights) reported that minors aged 16 and 17 had still been forced into the fields, but in one case some teenagers had been returned to their school after the media reported they were working in the cotton fields and local government officials arrived to take them back to their school teachers.
Whilst much still needs to be done to address labour violations in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan, and to protect teenagers and adults from labour and human rights abuses, it is important to note that there has been some success in reducing grave human rights violations in the last eight years. We are thrilled that EJF’s campaign goal of eradicating forced child labour from cotton production in Uzbekistan has been achieved, at least in part, this year.
Since 2006, consistent pressure on the Uzbek Government from policymakers, civil society, members of the public and major retailers such as Tesco, has altered industry practices. It is important that we continue to work collaboratively to deal with the environmental and social issues linked to cotton production, including toxic pesticides, the misuse of water and forced labour.
Child workers in the agricultural sector generally work for very low wages and in some cases for nothing at all. Even more disturbingly, the cotton industry in particular relies on a high level of forced child labour – a clear contravention of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour. Seven of the top eight producers in the world have been documented as having widespread child labour in cotton production.
When EJF first started investigating the cotton industry in Uzbekistan, although prohibited under the Uzbek constitution, hundreds of thousands of children were being forced by the regime to handpick cotton during the harvest season with little or no pay. In one region alone, it was estimated that up to 200,000 children were working in the cotton fields. Some children missed up to three months of schooling each year while picking cotton, their schools were closed and they were transported to the fields where each child was assigned a daily quota of cotton to collect. Those who failed to meet their quotas or picked poor quality cotton were punished by scolding, beating or detention.
In the autumn of 2014, young children were at their school desks instead of the cotton fields for the very first time. Children under 16 were not forced en masse by the Uzbek government to pick cotton, although our local partner UGF (Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights) reported that minors aged 16 and 17 had still been forced into the cotton fields. In one case, local government officials took these teenagers back to their school after the media reported they were working in the cotton fields.
In the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, an estimated 100,000 children below 18 have been reported to work 13 hours a day in cottonseed production for less than half a euro per day. These children are often bonded by loans given to their parents, since many farmers are unable to pay the local minimum wage and advance money to parents who are then bound to send their children to the fields.
In Egypt, each year an estimated one million children aged between 7 and 12 work to manually remove pests from cotton plants. For periods of up to 10 weeks each year, they work 11 hours a day, 7 days a week. Abuses reported include exposure to pesticides, beatings from foremen and overwork. Research in 2001 revealed that children harvesting cotton in one region earned US $1.08 per day, while adults earned around 50% more. Children working in cotton pest control – a task rarely done by adults – earned even less, between US $0.68 and US $0.95 per day.
Children across Asia and Africa may also work on family farms, a symptom of the inequity of the cotton supply chain that gives poor rewards to farmers in the developing world. Fair trade cotton that guarantees farmers a set price for their cotton is one way in which poverty and child labour can begin to be alleviated.
Cotton grows on 2.4% of the world’s arable land, yet it is responsible for the release of over US $2bn of chemical pesticides each year.
Nearly half of these are considered toxic enough to be classified as hazardous by the World Health Organization.
What are pesticides?
Pesticides are hazardous by design – these are chemicals manufactured with the aim of killing, repelling or inhibiting the growth of living organisms by impairing biological processes essential for the maintenance of life.
In many cases, pesticides not only affect the physiology of the pest species they are intended to control but also impact upon the well-being of humans and biodiversity. This phenomenon is particularly associated with insecticides, which account for almost 60% of all agrochemicals applied to cotton worldwide.
In total, the world’s cotton accounts for nearly 25% of global insecticide use (1); far more than is applied to any other single crop worldwide.
Across all agricultural sectors, an estimated 1 to 5 million cases of pesticide poisoning occur every year, resulting in 20,000 reported deaths among agricultural workers and at least 1 million requiring hospitalisation.
Acute symptoms of pesticide poisoning include headaches, vomiting, tremors, lack of coordination, difficulty breathing or respiratory depression, loss of consciousness, seizures and death. Chronic effects of long-term pesticide exposure include impaired memory and concentration, disorientation, severe depression and confusion.
While developing countries account for less than 30% of global pesticide consumption, the bulk of pesticide poisonings occur in a developing world scenario, including an estimated 99% of pesticide-induced deaths.
Between 1-3% of agricultural workers worldwide (not just those engaged in the cotton sector) suffer from acute pesticide poisoning. No specific figures are available for pesticide poisoning in relation to cotton production per se, but in developing countries it has been estimated that approximately 50% of all pesticides are applied in cotton cultivation.
In India, home to over one third of the world’s cotton farmers, cotton accounts for 54% of all pesticides used annually, despite occupying just 5% of land under crops.
Children and pesticides
Despite being particularly vulnerable to poisoning, child labourers throughout the world risk exposure to hazardous pesticides through participation in cotton production. Children are also often the first victims of pesticide poisoning, even if they do not participate in spraying, due to the proximity of their homes to cotton fields or because of the reuse of empty pesticide containers.
Polluting valuable freshwater
Hazardous pesticides associated with global cotton production also represent a substantial threat to global freshwater resources. Hazardous cotton pesticides are known to contaminate rivers in the US, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Brazil, Australia, Greece and West Africa.
Named and shamed: Pesticides commonly used in cotton
Aldicarb, a powerful nerve agent, is one of the most toxic pesticides applied to cotton worldwide and the second most used pesticide in global cotton production. Just one drop of aldicarb, absorbed through the skin, is enough to kill an adult.
Monocrotophos, despite being withdrawn from the US market in 1989, is still widely used in developing world countries. In 1997, Paraguay’s Ministry of Health and Welfare identified it as being responsible for causing paralysis in children living in cotton growing areas.
Deltamethrin is a nerve agent applied in over half of the cotton producing countries. Medical analysis in a community in a South African village located on the edge of a major cotton production area found traces of deltamethrin in human breast milk.
Cotton is one of the thirstiest crops in the world, taking about 2,720 litres of water to produce one cotton t-shirt, equivalent to what an average person might drink over three years. Consumption of cotton products represents 2.6% of the global water footprint of consumed goods and services. 80% of the total EU water footprint is located outside Europe in countries such as China, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. In 2008, 2,890 billion litres of water was used in Pakistan to grow the cotton needed just to make products sold by the homestore Ikea – equivalent to the volume of drinking water consumed in Sweden over 176 years.
More than 70% of global cotton is produced using irrigation and 15-35% of all irrigation withdrawals are estimated to be unsustainable.
The environmental and social impacts of unsustainable cotton production are perhaps most clearly demonstrated by the demise of the Aral Sea in Central Asia. This inland sea has almost disappeared as a direct result of intense cotton production under the former Soviet Union and its decline is continuing today. Although this particular example is driven by a unique set of political and economic factors, the ever-growing demand for cotton globally could trigger future ecological crises, increased poverty, forced migration and violent conflict, both nationally and between nations.
"The demise of the Aral Sea in Central Asia remains one of the most iconic global images of mismanaged agriculture policies and highlights the interconnectivity between such policies and water scarcity."
Majority Staff Report Prepared for the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, 2011
Draining a sea?
Only around 50 years ago, the Aral Sea stretched across an area of 66,000km2, surrounded by smaller lakes and biologically diverse marshes and wetlands. But overexploitation (primarily for agriculture) has drained this precious resource.
By 1987, the Aral Sea had split into two separate bodies of water, the Small and the Large Aral, and the latter split again two decades later. More than 54,000km2 of the former sea floor – an area bigger than the whole of Denmark – is now exposed as dry mud flats, contaminated with salt and pesticide residues that are deposited over a 350km radius by toxic dust storms.
In less than a generation, the Aral Sea has shrunk to 10% of its former volume, leading to the widespread destruction of ecosystems and the livelihoods that were built upon them. Its demise is one of the greatest ecological disasters in modern history, and it is entirely human-made.
How cotton emptied the Aral Sea
The primary cause of the Aral Sea crisis has been irrigation, mainly for cotton. In Uzbekistan, almost 20,000 litres of water are withdrawn for every kilogram of cotton harvested.
According to the World Bank, Uzbek farmers withdraw an average of 14,000m3 of water for every hectare of irrigated farmland. With over 1.47 million hectares under cotton, Uzbek cotton farms consume over 20km3 every year.
An ageing and inefficient irrigation system totalling 28,000km of canals has contributed to the demise, with leaks and evaporation a major problem. A World Bank study found that up to 60% of water diverted from the rivers fails to reach the fields.
Even though only 10% of the 44,000km2 of arable land is irrigated, this level of inefficiency means that water demand for agriculture accounts for 93% of overall annual water consumption in the country. Such misuse of water means that per capita water consumption in Central Asia is on average twice that of developed countries. Yet, on the ground, the number of people with access to safe, clean water is declining. Uzbekistan is one of the very few countries where the proportion of people with access to clean water has fallen, from 94% in 1990 to 87% in 2012 (2).
1. Pesticides Action Network North America: http://www.panna.org/
2. World Bank: http://data.worldbank.org/