The Government has been urged to investigate two British cotton traders accused of breaching international guidelines on child slavery.
The European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) has filed complaints in the UK against Cargill Cotton and ICT Cotton, calling for an investigation into whether the companies "have contributed substantially to maintaining the use of child and forced labour in the Uzbek cotton production".
The ECCHR believes the companies have broken Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) guidelines by purchasing Uzbek cotton harvested through forced child labour.
Cargill Cotton said it had raised concerns over child labour with the Uzbek government and that it was important to find "sustainable solutions, whilst fostering responsible economic development".
Hundreds of thousands of children are forced to work in Uzbekistan's cotton harvest each autumn, according to information set out in the complaint documents. They spend two to four months picking cotton, with those who fail to meet their quotas punished with low grades and beatings. Families who do no co-operate may have their gas, electricity and water services cut off, as well as suffering physical violence, arrest and prosecution.
Uzbekistan is the third biggest exporter of cotton in the world, with exports bringing in over one billion US dollars a year. The industry is controlled by the authoritarian state, which orders school closures to mobilise children for the harvest, and is the only buyer for private growers.
The complaint states: "Although forbidden by Uzbek law, the industrial system of harvesting cotton is founded on the systematic and exhaustive use of child and forced labour."
Joanna Ewart-James of Anti-Slavery International said: "While cotton traders continue to buy Uzbek cotton it remains almost impossible to ensure that the clothes we are wearing are not linked to children in slavery. Cotton-traders need to accept their responsibility not to provide incentives for forced labour to continue in Uzbekistan.
According to the complaints, the two British companies were linked to Uzbekistan through branch offices in Tashkent and partnerships with Uzbek state-owned merchants. The OECD complaints are part of a pan-European campaign targeting seven cotton traders, with similar complaints filed in Germany, France, and Switzerland.
Cargill Cotton said it was concerned by the claims of enforced labour. A spokesman said: "We do not accept the use of illegal, abusive or enforced labour in any of our operations and we abide by the laws in the countries in which we operate. We have raised concerns about abusive or enforced child labour at meetings with representatives from the government of Uzbekistan."