Child cotton pickers in the Fergana Valley, Uzbekistan
Senior executives from the lobbying firm Bell Pottinger described how it would be possible for a despotic regime to continue using child labour for up to 20 years and still improve its international standing, as long as reforms were underway.
While repeatedly insisting to undercover reporters posing as representatives of the Uzbek cotton industry that it would be necessary to instigate reforms in the country, they suggested that slow progress need not be an impediment to better international relations.
‘No-one is suggesting it would be realistic to say tomorrow the problem will disappear,’ said Tim Collins, managing director of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs. ‘But we need to put some flesh on the bones of what movement in the right direction looks like.
‘So it might be step-by-step something like this, set a timeframe, 10, 20 years in the future when it will all be gone completely, but we take it step-by-step.’
It was stated that a minimum wage for child labour and a limit on the number of days schoolchildren could work in the cotton industry could be introduced to improve the country’s standing.
Mr Collins suggested an independent survey of the number of children working every six or 12 months. ‘It doesn’t mean it’s got to zero, maybe it takes quite some time to get to zero. But the number is clearly moving in the right direction. That’s a story you can tell,’ he said.
His colleague Sir David Richmond, Britain’s former special representative to Iraq, added: ‘So you don’t necessarily have to make huge leaps all the time, but there must be a sense in which there is constant progress.’
Both men were recorded as part of the Bureau’s investigation into lobbying published in the Independent.
Increasing business links
Keen to attract business from the fictitious cotton industry representatives with links to the Uzbek government, they laid out what the company could offer the regime in terms of bringing the country out of international isolation with only small degrees of change.
They suggested that if that were the case, the prime minister David Cameron might in future be prepared to increase Britain’s links with the country.
‘Obama and Cameron…both in different ways to their domestic audiences said that they don’t believe democracy can be parachuted from 4000ft and they’re less inclined to try to impose particular models of government on other countries,’ said Mr Collins.
He went on to add: ‘To some extent that’s an asset from your point of view because they’re more interested in realpolitik.’
And he used the example of Libya, under Colonel Gaddafi, to suggest how it might work.
‘Obama and Cameron…both in different ways to their domestic audiences said that they don’t believe democracy can be parachuted from 4000ft and they’re less inclined to try to impose particular models of government on other countries’
Tim Collins, Bell Pottinger Public Relations
‘It’s not a parallel that we would draw a lot but Tony Blair, for a time, played very strongly on the fact that he had been able to open up Libya and Colonel Gadaffi was now becoming much more cuddly.
‘That didn’t turn out too well in the long term but for a time it actually illustrates that it might be that David Cameron or even President Obama would quite like – neither of them are at the moment festooned with lots of overseas policy successes that there is a middle ground that can be [formed].’
Sir David later added: ‘The only thing I would say from a sort of diplomatic point of view, former diplomat point of view is that you will not in this country get the politicians, the foreign secretary and the prime minister to completely ignore human rights issues and see Uzbekistan only through the medium of trade and commerce. The Chinese prime minister came, it didn’t stop David Cameron, even though he knew it would annoy, raising human rights issues.’
The strategy presentation also included a discussion of whether Tesco or Asda could be persuaded to drop opposition to using Uzbek cotton.
Mr Collins: ‘They [industry] will respond to pressure both from the top and the bottom. The top is the political which we’ve talked about. The bottom is consumer pressure… There is sense in probably thinking about both because industry will respond to ‘small-p’ political pressure.’
Mr Collins added that using child labour to pick cotton should be presented as a historical legacy problem.
‘No country in the world dealt with child labour or human rights overnight’
Tim Collins, Bell Pottinger Public Affairs
‘The story shouldn’t be at this point ‘the problem has been solved’. The story we’re trying to get out is there are still challenges, still great historical legacy issues that are being dealt with.
‘No country in the world dealt with child labour or human rights overnight. It didn’t happen in Britain or America until hundreds of years ago or so, maybe less than that.
‘These were issues in our countries. So part of the story is actually to say it is about a direction of travel, it’s about the fact that things are better now than they were before and they’ll be better still in a year’s time and five years time.’