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Ethical and Sustainable Fashion — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:54 pm on 19th March 2013.

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Photo of Baroness Prosser Baroness Prosser Labour 7:54 pm, 19th March 2013

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey, for securing this debate. As has been mentioned, the all-party group has a very wide agenda. Included under the heading of ethics is, of course, the treatment of people engaged in the production, transportation and sale of textiles and clothing. Shortage of time requires me to concentrate my remarks on just one of those areas, and I will focus on those engaged in production.

Let me start with raw materials, in particular, cotton. One of the most disturbing and difficult examples is that of cotton picking in Uzbekistan, which has already been flagged up by the noble Baroness, Lady Young. Uzbek cotton accounts for 10% of the world's harvest, ranking third in the world. It is, of course, a very important product for the country, making up 20% of its GDP and approximately 40% of its hard currency export earnings. The legacy of Uzbek's history with the old USSR, with its continued command economy, does not provide a happy situation either for the farmers or the cotton pickers.

A production quota system is forced upon farmers and that, together with the government-set price, means that farmers cannot cover their expenses. Lack of profit leaves no money for investment in machinery, which leads to a continuing heavy reliance on cheap labour. Incidences of minimal payment or no pay at all means that many adults go elsewhere to find work, often to neighbouring countries. The Uzbek Government then step in with a system of forced labour, mostly, but not entirely, made up of children. Some schools in the cotton-growing areas are forced to close between September and November for the picking season so that children, some as young as 10 years old, can be sent to the fields to pick cotton for seven days a week. Children in rural areas are required to carry out weeding of the cotton fields during May and June. The children who pick the cotton have a quota to reach which varies, depending on the local circumstances, between 60 pounds and 110 pounds of raw cotton per day.

This is by any other name slave labour and it is not confined to children. The Government of Uzbekistan also forcibly mobilise teachers, public servants and employees of private businesses to harvest the annual crop manually. Failure to comply can mean the loss of employment and/or pension rights. The Cotton Campaign has a list of demands for Governments and companies, and, of course, cotton traders, calling on them to use due diligence in their supply chains, to demand respect for human rights and to require Uzbekistan to abide by the employment conventions of the ILO, to which it is a signatory. In 2008, the country ratified the ILO convention on the minimum working age and the ILO Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour.

I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure the House that the UK Government will use their best endeavours at the ILO annual conference to bring this issue to the attention of the global community. Uzbekistan cotton is, of course, not the only area of concern to those campaigning for better rights for workers in the textile and clothing supply chain. Labour Behind the Label, an NGO which campaigns for better terms and conditions for those employed in making our textiles and clothing, calls for improvements in wages and in health and safety. It has joined forces with Asia Floor Wage in calling for a living wage across the region and has now widened its embrace to include work with activists in the USA, North America and Europe, but western companies must be more vigilant of the supply chain and take personal responsibility for checking the veracity of locally made claims that all is well.