BBC TwoNewsnight
Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 October 2007, 18:12 GMT
Child labour and the High Street
Boy carrying cotton sack

Was the shirt on your back made using forced child labour?

It's an uncomfortable thought, one that we normally push to the back of our minds as we search out bargains in the High Street.

And companies make it easy for us to ignore the problem - reassuring the consumer that manufacturers adhere to strict codes of conduct.

But what about the raw materials, such as cotton, which are used to make the clothes?

It is often claimed it is too difficult - in a global marketplace - to ever be certain where materials such as cotton have come from.

Stores say they have little or no control where the raw materials come from and they rely on their suppliers to source the materials.

But is that really the case? What if you were able to follow the trail from the clothes rack to the factory and back to the fields where the cotton has been harvested.

Girl working in cotton field
The legislation of the Republic of Uzbekistan forbids any form of child labour on the cotton fields.
Embassy of Uzbekistan

That's exactly what reporter Simon Ostrovsky did - and what he found was simply heartbreaking.

As part of a special report we filmed children in Uzbekistan being forced to work in cotton fields instead of going to school.

For two-and-a-half months a year, classrooms are emptied across this Central Asian nation so that the crop can be harvested.

The cotton industry is big business and is completely controlled by the country's brutal authoritarian regime.

Widespread torture

President Islam Karimov, takes a ruthless approach to all forms of opposition.

Two years ago the army 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 permission to operate there.

It's alleged that torture in police custody is widespread, and human rights groups have reported that at least one opponent of the regime has been boiled alive.

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.
Asda statement

Uzbekistan is the second largest exporter of cotton in the world but in other respects the country has closed itself off from the rest of the world - and reporting from there posed some real challenges.

To even get into the country the team from Newsnight had to pose as reporters from a textile industry magazine.

At a conference in Uzbekistan for the cotton industry the journalists met representatives from top US and European companies.

Mark English, from the Liverpool-based Plexus Cotton said the cotton purchased by his company in Uzbekistan definitely ended up in clothing in the High Street in the UK.

But when Newsnight told Plexus that child labour was widespread in Uzbekistan and enforced by the state, the company's lawyers said their clients were unaware that child labour was taking place in the country.

We have been categorically assured by the Uzbekistan Government that the use of child labour by the Uzbekistan Government is prohibited
Plexus statement

In a statement they said: "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 only a tiny fraction of its total cotton trade through Uzbekistan.

"We have been categorically assured by the Uzbekistan Government that the use of child labour by the Uzbekistan Government is prohibited.

"If evidence is produced to show that this is untrue, we will immediately cease trading in Uzbekistan cotton."

We then phoned manufacturers in Bangladesh, two of whom told us that they used Uzbek cotton in products which were then exported to the UK.

One British company that both said they produced clothing for was ASDA's George brand.

In a statement Asda said: "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.

Andijan protests
Hundreds died in 2005 when the army put down peaceful protests

"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."

But Asda stopped short of saying it would no longer use Uzbek cotton.

Later in the fields in the north the reality of cotton production in Uzbekistan is laid bare.

Even though it is September, the cotton fields are full of school children hard at work.

One boy said that the children have been sent to pick cotton. He said he wouldn't return to school until November - when the cotton harvest was finished.

Human rights groups estimate some 450,000 children like him are shut out of schools and working in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan every harvest.

Another child, a nine-year-old girl who has to work from eight in the morning until sunset, said: "They have closed the school - that's why I'm picking cotton."

Forced labour

Later police are seen marshalling hundreds of children onto buses bound for the cotton fields.

A row of trucks next to the buses is filled with bedding and mattresses that the children will sleep on once they get to the fields.

The convoy gets its own police escort.

During filming the Newsnight team are arrested but manage to hide the footage from police.

Country profile: Uzbekistan
29 Aug 07 |  Country profiles
Gap pulls 'child labour' clothing
28 Oct 07 |  South Asia

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