By Umberto Bacchi
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - European Union lawmakers on Thursday backed a textile trade deal with Uzbekistan opposed by anti-slavery activists who say it will result in the EU profiting from forced labor in the Central Asian country's cotton industry.
The influential trade committee (INTA) approved the deal, revising a 2011 decision by the Europea Parliament to put it on hold over allegations of child and forced labor in the Uzbek cotton industry.
Lawmakers commended Uzbekistan for its efforts in getting children out of the fields but stressed the deal was conditional to the country taking further action against forced labor involving adults.
"The progress made by the Uzbek authorities allows us to move forward and include textiles in our partnership agreement. But we will remain extremely vigilant," rapporteur Maria Arena said in a statement.
The draft recommendation, passed by 31 votes to four, paves the way for the deal to receive the final go-ahead at a plenary session of the EU parliament in December.
It is opposed by human rights groups which accuse Uzbekistan, the world's fifth-largest cotton exporter, of operating a state-orchestrated forced labor system.
Anti-Slavery International said the vote was disappointing and gave a green card to trade in goods produced by forced labor.
"The European Parliament should hold the EU's trading partners to high standards," Klara Skrivankova, the group's program manager for the UK and Europe, said in a statement.
The European Parliament postponed a decision on the trade deal in 2011 pending further steps taken by Uzbekistan to tackle child and forced labor.
Two years later Uzbekistan allowed observers from the International Labor Organization (ILO) to monitor the cotton harvest for the first time.
In a 2015 report the ILO wrote that thanks to the government's efforts the use of children had become "rare, sporadic and socially unacceptable" but the organized recruitment of adults remained widespread.
Activists say that hundreds of thousands of people, including university students, teachers and health workers, are regularly forced to pick cotton for weeks in arduous conditions.
Those who refuse face threats, intimidation and punishment, while activists and journalists monitoring the picking are exposed to harassment and abuse from the authorities, they say.
"The European Parliament cannot pretend that the human rights concerns over Uzbekistan ended with children no longer sent out to the fields, whilst their teachers and so many others suffer instead," Umida Niyazova, director of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, said in a statement.
The Uzbek embassy in Brussels replied to requests for comment with a document listing measures taken in cooperation with the ILO to tackle child and forced labor, including a nationwide campaign with posters, banners and media used to raise awareness on the banned practices.
In 2016 cotton pickers were recruited on a voluntary basis, allowed to keep their salary and job, and they received additional pay for participating in the harvest, the document stated.
Arena, a MEP with the Socialists and Democrats group, said in an email to the Thomson Reuters Foundation the committee was aware forced labor remained an issue but that blocking the deal would have risked damaging the dialogue and cooperation built with Uzbekistan over the past five years.
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi; Editing by Astrid Zweynert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)