It is highly unlikely that anyone who lives in the Central Asian country of Uzbekistan would have heard of a cluster of Uniting Churches from the regional Victorian city of Bendigo. But this hasn’t stopped a small group of people from the Bendigo/Axedale Uniting Church social justice group from taking steps to improve the lives of those who work in cotton fields more than 11,000 kilometres away.
Uzbekistan is the sixth largest producer of cotton in the world, generating an estimated US$1 billion annually through the export of around 850,000 tonnes of cotton every year.
Although the Government of Uzbekistan denies it is official policy, forced labour in the cotton industry is systematically organised by the State.
Each September, when the cotton harvest begins, children and adults are forced to pick cotton by hand in order to fill the shortfall in voluntary adult labour. They receive little, if any, pay.
According to Anti-Slavery International:
“The work is dangerous, children can be left exhausted, suffer from ill-health and malnutrition after weeks of arduous labour. During harvests there are even reported deaths due to poor health and safety standards. Those working on remote cotton farms are forced to stay in makeshift dormitories in poor conditions with insufficient food and drinking water.” (www.antislavery.org)
The synod’s Justice and International Mission (JIM) unit supports an international campaign against slavery in cotton production. Part of the campaign has called upon international institutions and the private sector (including retailers and cotton traders) to put pressure on the government of Uzbekistan to end the use of forced labour in the cotton industry.
Garth Phillips is a member of the Bendigo Uniting Church social justice group. The group consists of approximately five or six members who meet regularly to identify issues of concern. They then take these issues back to their congregations and invite them to support campaigns.
He explained that the group received the JIM unit’s newsletter, Just Focus, in July 2012 and decided to campaign for the people of Uzbekistan.
“We wrote directly to retailer Myer, asking them why they weren’t prepared to join with other corporations who weren’t willing to use cotton from Uzbekistan in their retail goods,” Mr Phillips said.
Within a month the group received a reply from Myer’s quality assurance manager. The letter referred to the company’s ‘Ethical Sourcing Policy’ and, although it stated “an ongoing commitment to ethical sourcing”, the letter did not commit to excluding Uzbekistan cotton from Myer’s supply chain.
And so began a series of letters between the two. Each time Myer attempted to placate concerns or excuse their lack of action, the group wrote back, asking for clarification.
When the group asked for the results of monitoring of the Ethical Sourcing Policy, the general manager of corporate affairs wrote back stating: “We do not publish these internal documents.”
“We wrote back to them thanking them for their response and saying we appreciated their efforts,” Mr Phillips said.
“Then, in the final paragraph we asked: ‘Does your company report directly on its work in your Annual Report?’ We put a bit of a sting in the tail by saying, in the interests of transparency, this would not be an unreasonable practice.”
Speaking with Mr Phillips, it is clear the corporate giant underestimated his tenacity and determination. Aged in his 80s, the retired social worker describes himself as a ‘general stirrer’. The group would accept nothing less than an assurance from Myer that they would no longer source products using cotton from Uzbekistan.
Finally, in September last year, the group’s persistence paid off.
“We got a letter back from Bernie Brookes, the head honcho [CEO of Myer] saying he was disappointed about the fact that we were still pursuing the issue,” Mr Phillips said.
“But, the letter also said: ‘In direct response to your concerns and public awareness of this issue, we wrote to our suppliers stating specifically that the use of cotton in our product that has been knowingly sourced from Uzbekistan is a direct breach of Myer’s ESP. Any such breaches require immediate corrective action. Failing this we will move the non-conforming suppliers from our supply chain.’”
Mr Phillips said that when he read that paragraph to his faith community the following Sunday, he was greeted with spontaneous applause. He feels the success of this campaign shows that, no matter your age, fitness or location your voice can be heard on issues of concern.
“Changes can happen, it’s just a matter of getting the process right. At St Andrews, although we are fairly strong in the younger age groups, like a lot of congregations, we’re aging.
“It’s working with the energy levels that are there and getting something on paper and putting it under people’s noses. Then you’re off and running.”