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Cottonpicking Bad

Summer is coming, it's going to be hot and you want to look cool. No problem. Head down to almost any of the major high-street retailers and pick up a three-pack of pure white cotton t-shirts for next to nothing. But if any of the cotton comes from Uzbekistan - and some of it probably does - then you may want to know the dirt on brutal human rights abuses and environmental devastation before the store swipes both your payment card and your conscience.

Cotton production in Uzbekistan doesn't feature in all those glossy poster campaigns and TV commercials beloved of our best-known garment retailers. But then a bunch of dirt-poor children with bleeding hands standing next to a dead fish on the shores of a dried up inland sea probably wouldn't play as well as a giggling group of brightly-clothed youngsters cavorting to the latest hit single.

And then there's Andijan. You may have heard of that town briefly on the news last year. Even the Uzbekistan government admits that 187 civilians died there on 13 May 2005. Unofficial but trustworthier estimates place the death toll at closer to 700 - men, women and children shot in cold blood by government troops in the worst state-sponsored massacre of unarmed protesters since Tiananmen Square. Lost the thread? It's still cotton.

Uzbekistan is the world's second largest cotton exporter and Europe is its biggest customer, buying around $350 million of Uzbek cotton every year. And cotton production in the central Asian republic represents one of the most exploitative enterprises in the world. In the bad old days of the Soviet Union, children as young as 12 were forced to work alongside the massed ranks of tractors at harvest time. There aren't many tractors these days and in a scene reminiscent of 18th-century Mississippi, entire families are forced to pick cotton just to survive. Children as young as seven are taken out of school for three months a year to work the fields, often without adequate food or water. If they pick less than four kilos of cotton a day they are beaten by their own teachers, who are forced to work alongside them. How are those t-shirts looking? Still whiter than white?

The slave driver-in-chief is president Islam Karimov, a former Soviet stooge who seized control when Uzbekistan gained independence in 1991 while the USSR crumbled. Since then he has spun one of the world's most unpleasant dictatorships out of the Uzbek cotton trade, which both funds and motivates his regime. Andijan was merely the most visible and large scale of human rights abuses in a land where any dissent is routinely met with torture and extrajudicial execution. The whole machinery of the state is geared to ensure that cotton is the only significant export crop, and so the Uzbek farmers and their families are left with little option but to work for a pittance as Karimov, his cronies and the international cotton industry cream off the profits. The Uzbek cotton industry is also built upon environmental degradation on a massive scale, including the diversion of the rivers that once fed the Aral Sea to irrigate the cotton fields. Once Asia's largest expanse of inland water, three quarters of the Aral Sea has now been drained. In less than a generation, the Karakalpak people, who have lived on the shores of the Aral for 2,000 years, have seen their way of life destroyed. The 24 species of native fish that were their livelihood have disappeared and what was once the sea floor has become a vast desert of dry mud-flats contaminated with salt and pesticide residues. When the north winds blow, huge dust storms of these residues engulf and suffocate the Karakalpaks. In some regions more than half of recorded deaths can be linked to respiratory illness. The Karakalpaks also boast the highest rate of cancer of the oesophagus in the world and birth abnormalities five times higher than those suffered by the average shopper on London's Oxford Street.

To add insult to injury, most of the water diverted to the cotton fields of Uzbekistan doesn't even get there. Due to the inefficiency of the irrigation system more than 60 per cent is lost en route. The mismanagement of the Aral is now threatening agriculture across the nation, with two thirds of all irrigated land suffering from severe salinisation. An adequate drainage system has not been installed because it would make cotton production more expensive.

If any of the above concerns you, then this is what concerned cotton consumers can do. Ask the shops, especially the big chains, to tell you whether any of the cotton in their products comes from Uzbekistan and refuse to buy them if they do or if the companies can't, or won't tell you. Demand that they label all their clothes to show the country of origin of the cotton fibre. Ask them also to guarantee that their products are child-labour free and that they do not contribute to the destruction of the environment. If you are an investor, seek assurances that none of your shares are connected to companies involved in the Uzbek cotton industry. And tell everyone you know about the real cost of those lovely white t-shirts. Then perhaps the 700 people who were slaughtered in Andijan won't have died in vain.

Paperback Fighter

In a world of shifting cultures, Hari Kunzru understands the uncertainties of identity better than most. To look at, he is every bit the confident writer. Promoting his critically acclaimed first novel The Impressionist in India, he enjoyed the status of a highly eligible bachelor. One interviewer even asked him his credit-card limit and views on women's fashion. The toothy grin that spreads sporadically across his face while he talks, the Hugh Grant charm and Salman Rushdie attention to detail, all suggest a man who has always been sure of himself.

He certainly doesn't seem to worry too much about making powerful enemies. In November The Impressionist was named as the winner of the 5,000 John Llewellyn Rhys award. The John Llewellyn Rhys is the second oldest literary prize in Britain, but for the past 15 years it has been sponsored by The Mail on Sunday. Kunzru rejected the award, citing the newspaper's 'editorial policy of vilifying and demonising refugees and asylum seekers'. Kunzru demanded that the paper donate the prize money to the Refugee Council.

But the persona that the author now presents to the world is the result of a hard-won battle to reconcile competing influences in his life. Kunzru, who has an English mother and an Indian immigrant father, admits that The Impressionist's protagonist Pran Nath is modelled partly on himself. The mixed-race Pran is born into north Indian wealth at the height of the Raj. But finding himself plummeted into terrifying poverty, he eventually rejects his brownness and nurtures a borrowed white identity among the upper classes of England. While Pran is a character of extremes, Kunzru concedes: 'I write him out of my own experience of trying to fit into very disparate social situations.'

Kunzru's own beginnings are certainly less fantastic than Pran's, and are mirrored in the lives of countless middle-class British Asians. He grew up in an affluent London suburb (a 'heartland of Thatcherism'). 'There was hostility towards Black and Asian people and immigrants in general,' he remembers. 'I realised that I wasn't necessarily wanted. There were people who would be violent towards me and the people I cared about.' For the only time during the interview, his voice falters.

'Being young in the early 1980s there was also real nuclear-war tension,' he adds - his voice rising. 'I'd have nightmares about being annihilated.' These tensions were reawakened for Kunzru by the war against Iraq. 'We're living in fear,' he says. 'The imposition of this abstract war on us has led to increased hostility to immigrants. The way the asylum issue is being dealt with now is becoming an orthodoxy that we need to crack down, that we have too many of whoever they are. We're being taught to fear outsiders.'

The fears of his youth have helped feed his recent activism. Interested but not involved in politics for years, he now regrets his relative lack of involvement in politics while studying at Oxford University in the 1990s. 'I wish I had been more politically active than I actually was,' he says. 'I went on marches and I signed petitions, but I didn't do any organising; partly because I was very busy being an artist.' He whispers the word 'artist' almost shamefully, with the accent of a theatrical luvvie.

But since writing The Impressionist, Kunzru has found himself more involved in campaign work. 'Politics was sort of thrust on me,' he says, leaning back in the chair as if the weight of it is pressing on him now. Angered by the growing prejudice against immigrants in Britain's right-wing press, he has worked closely with the Refugee Council.

He wears the mantle of this new responsibility with a mixture of passion and understanding. While his empathy towards immigrants is clearly rooted in personal experience, he backs his case with countless statistics and facts. 'The Daily Express in one month last year did 22 splashes on asylum seekers,' he says. 'The cumulative effect of that is to demonise poor and vulnerable people who we should be protecting. The Daily Mail also has an agenda that is promoting hostility to non-white British people as well as immigrants. All the press are to a greater or lesser extent guilty of keeping the ball rolling.'

Kunzru's greatest strength is in pushing taboos. One he clearly feels strongly about is the fallacy that non-whites in Britain cannot be racist. Immigrants from the 1960s and 1970s are as guilty of racism -- particularly towards new immigrants and asylum seekers -- as the white population, he admits. 'You find the most vicious prejudice among those communities.'

The novelist is also roused by Conservative leader Michael Howard's recent attempts to exploit his Jewish immigrant background. 'He never said a damn word about his immigrant ancestry when he was trying to send all the asylum seekers home when he was home secretary. We only began hearing about his immigrant experience very recently.' Relaxing from his rage, he contemplates for a second before exclaiming loudly: 'Howard is Pran!'

In The Impressionist, Kunzru contrasts Pran with socialists that the anti-hero meets in Bombay; the Bombay communists condemn Pran for being the white man's 'lackey'. Pran's politics are put into even starker relief by the character of Gertler, a wealthy communist Jew who Pran first meets at public school. Kunzru says Gertler is 'someone who's prepared to assert his beliefs even at risk to himself... When they end up on opposite sides of a street fight between the communists and fascists, Pran realises he has gone a bit the wrong way'.

There are hints of Gertler in Kunzru as much as there are elements of Pran. 'There's an idea that if you're born privileged, like I was, you shouldn't try to work for a fairer world. It's absurd. There's a traditional fear of the rich communist because politics to them is more like a luxury or a hobby rather than something that is forced upon them by necessity.'

Despite his fears about the current political situation, Kunzru remains optimistic. 'The extra-parliamentary left is getting more significant,' he says. 'The social movements throughout the world are becoming more organised, but there is a real need to produce an agenda for the left that shows it is possible to have prosperity as well as peace.' After a little hesitation, he adds: 'I actually think that even within the Parliamentary Labour Party there are still a lot of people who would get behind another kind of politics. I don't think the Blairite version of social democracy is the only answer.'

As a former editor of every technophiles' favourite magazine Wired, it is immediately clear that technology is a subject occupying Kunzru's mind as much as racial politics. Though the nuclear threat has dissipated, he believes that technology still plays an important role in our lives. 'Social technologies like the internet are becoming increasingly important in both controlling people and giving them the opportunity to resist control. I think it's very poorly understood in Britain quite what possibilities for social control new technologies give. There are databases, face-recognition and various information-based technologies available to government. Future governments will be in a position to be able to control people. Anything that became seriously subversive would be snuffed out immediately.'

At the same time, Kunzru loves the internet for the possibilities it offers, especially to social movements across the world. 'Simply as a space for the imagination, the internet is amazing. I've been in discussion groups where you get all parts of the world thrashing out ideas.'

In his new book Transmission (out in June), Kunzru has combined the issues of race and technology. The book describes the turbulent journey of a shy Indian computer programmer to the US. Ashamed and desperately scared after losing his job, the hero introduces a virus to computer systems in an effort to create work for himself.

The theme of fear, which ran like an injected vein through Kunzru's first work, seems to be just as vital in his second book. In trying to decipher human behaviour, it helps that the author himself also understands what it means to be scared.

Under Cover of Fear

The US war on terror and the build-up to an invasion of Iraq have drawn attention away from George Bush's domestic policies. Indeed, national security is increasingly being used as justification for action against organized labor.

Bush recently forced the re-opening of 29 ports closed in a docks dispute on the west coast of the US. He used a court order to initiate the "Taft-Hartley" process that compels workers involved in industrial disputes to return to normal working during an 80-day "cooling off" period. Bush justified his action on economic grounds, but also said that the ports crisis was a threat to national defense. He said: "These ports load the ships that carry supplies to our men and women in uniform. These ports also receive parts and materials used by our defense contractors to complete projects and maintain military equipment ... Because the operation of western ports is vital to our economy and to our military, I have determined that the current situation imperils our national health and safety."

These are powerful arguments at any time. But particularly when the US considers itself in a "war against terror," and may soon be involved in a more traditional war against Iraq. All this is a far cry from the days immediately following September 11 when there was the unusual sight of a right-wing Republican president standing with New York firefighters and praising as "US heroes" one of the most highly unionized workforces in the country.

After the terror attacks nothing was supposed to be the same again. US unions are fiercely patriotic. And over 600 card-carrying trade unionists died on September 11. Unions were an essential part of the organized rescue and clear-up. So it was no surprise that they responded to the administration's call to arms. John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO (the US's equivalent of the TUC) said: "We supported the president and his administration in the war on terrorism from the very first day."

Yet one year on, normal service has resumed and it is increasingly obvious that the Bush administration is using its "war against terror" to camouflage a good old-fashioned Republican war against organized labor.

On the west coast of the country, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), which represents 10,500 dockers, spent months negotiating a new contract covering technological change, benefits and jobs with the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), the representative of the multinational shipping companies and terminal owners.

The Los Angeles Times revealed that when the negotiations began in May, the White House set up a task force to monitor developments. It included representatives from the departments of Commerce, Labor and Transportation and, ominously, the Office of Homeland Security (OHS). OHS head Tom Ridge phoned ILWU president Jim Spinosa to "explain" that a strike would not be in the national interest.

Andrew Siff, a senior attorney at the Labor department, outlined the administration's options to the dockers: Bush could declare a national economic emergency, forcing an 80-day strike delay under the Taft-Hartley Act; he could send in Navy personnel to run the ports with the National Guard; the docks could be brought under the Railway Labor Act, which allows the president to stop strikes that threaten to "deprive any section of the country of essential transportation"; or he could break up the bargaining unit that unites longshoremen at all West Coast ports on the grounds that the union is a monopoly.

Previously, there had been no strike vote, nor even a threat to strike from the union. The ILWU had even announced that if there were a strike, military cargo would be exempted and unloaded by its members.

Responding to Siff, the AFL-CIO condemned the government: "The mere threat of intervention is an unconscionable effort to bolster the PMA's contract demands, and threatens the legitimate collective bargaining rights of longshore workers ... The threatened use of federal troops to determine the outcome of a collective bargaining dispute undermines the basic civil rights of the labor movement and all US workers."

The union accused the employers and the government of colluding to get long-term objectives pushed through under the banner of national security. ILWU business agent Jack Heyman said that for several years the employers had pushed hard for an increased federal government role in the maritime industry. The agenda, he said, was to "restrict trade union power on the docks by banning the right to strike ... Since September 11 their lobbying [has] borne strange fruit."

The ILWU's Bob McEllrath accused the port employers of "wrapping themselves in the flag" in their efforts to defeat the union.

On Labor Day AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Richard Trumka accused Bush of "using the power of the presidency and the cover of war and homeland security to pervert the collective bargaining process."

When Bush was inaugurated, he promised he would be "a uniter, not a divider." Creature of the corporations that he is, there was never much chance of that. As soon as he took office he began slashing away at pro-worker legislation and laying the basis for corporate tax cuts. The difference since September 11 is that assaults on civil liberties in general and workers' rights in particular are now cloaked in rhetoric about national security.

The terror attacks exposed the incompetence of the private airport screening companies. Under pressure, the work was nationalized or "federalized." The employees involved were exempted from the automatic union protections enjoyed by equivalent federal workers; citing national security, the administration effectively removed their right to join a union.

In January, Bush issued a presidential executive order removing collective bargaining rights from 1,000 US Justice Department employees. Once more national security grounds were cited. Legislation now going through Congress will merge all or part of 22 US agencies (including the coastguard, customs, immigration and transportation security offices) into a new Department of Homeland Security that will replace the existing OHS and have cabinet status. There will be 170,000 workers and (if Bush gets his way) no union rights in the new "flexible" department.

Bobby Harnage, leader of the federal employees' union AFGE, says all the flexibility claimed to be necessary already exists. "Either they don't understand the federal employment system, or else they're lying to the US people," he says. "I think they know exactly what they're doing ... They're just anti-union, anti-worker, and represent corporate America rather than the US way of life."

Local government union AFSCME described the president's actions as "providing a road map for right-wing state and local officials ... to mount their own assault on collective bargaining and civil service protections for public employees."

With the Republican victories in November's Congressional elections, US unions can expect renewed attacks over the months ahead.

Whatever the result of the longshore dispute, US trade unionists increasingly recognize that it's not their lack of patriotism that worries Bush but their collective strength and solidarity.

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