ITUC OnLine – March 15, 2007

Brussels, 15 March 2007 (ITUC OnLine): Global trade unions are demanding that this week’s high-level session on cotton at the World Trade Organisation in Geneva must embark on a root and branch reform of trade in cotton instead of tinkering at the edges. The aim must be to secure concrete progress to address the needs of cotton producing developing countries and their workers and thus help lift those countries, particularly in Africa, out of poverty. Cotton production is hugely important for a number of developing country producers, however despite the listing of cotton as a priority issue by the WTO in 2004 and 2005 by the WTO, little real progress has been made on addressing the enormous subsidies which some industrialised countries provide to domestic growers in the sector. This is having disastrous consequences in Africa, in particular.

While the WTO meeting this week is supposed to address both trade reform and development assistance issues concerning cotton production, the trade unions believe that it must be treated as a core development issue. Currently, Africa produces some of the world’s best cotton, but, nearly 97% of Africa’s cotton is exported in raw form and only 3% is transformed on the continent. Africa’s garment producers must then import finished fabric from other continents at considerable additional cost which, in turn, makes them uncompetitive in global markets.

At the same time, the real issues confronting the agriculture sector overall are not being addressed in the multilateral trading system.

Although income from cotton is crucial for some of the poorest developing countries, domestic food production capacity has been lost due to subsidised dumping, and the international financial institutions have been pushing developing countries to orient agriculture towards exports, to the detriment of domestic needs. The sustainability of this export-oriented strategy is highly questionable, and getting fair prices and greater export volumes for cotton can only be one part of a comprehensive development agenda. Instability in cotton prices and the over-pricing of inputs such as fertilisers, fuel and chemicals also need to be addressed. Also, domestic food production should play a central role in a strategic development agenda in developing countries, in order to move away from the dependency on cotton.

In addition, the living and working conditions of workers and small farmers in the cotton sector must be given priority. The sector is characterised by low wages, high injury and illness rates due especially to fertilisers and pesticides, child labour and forced labour, and poor or non-existent health, sanitary and medical facilities. Many migrant workers with little or no social protection work in the sector. “In some major exporting countries, cotton workers do not have even the basic human right to join a trade union”, according to Ron Oswald, General Secretary of the Global Union Federation IUF which covers the agriculture sector.

The union bodies are also pressing for greater use of locally-grown cotton in production of textiles and garments in developing countries.

“The best way of combating poverty is through job creation and one way of doing that in Africa is to process raw materials like cotton in the continent, adding value and promoting growth” said Neil Kearney, General Secretary of the ITGLWF, the Global Union Federation for the textiles and garment sector. “Currently, developing countries are experiencing a lose-lose situation, on the one hand being forced to export raw cotton, but, on the other being stopped in their tracks by subsidized production in the industrialized world. The WTO must take the reins and deal with this urgently before even further damage is done to workers and their communities in the developing country cotton producers.”

“The story of cotton today shows just how much needs to be done to reform the international trade and financial systems”, said ITUC General Secretary Guy Ryder. “Workers in some of the world’s poorest countries are bearing the brunt of global policies that are undermining economies and communities and resulting in exploitation and growing inequality worldwide”.