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Better Cotton Open for Business in Uzbekistan

Better Cotton is expanding to Uzbekistan.

It’s another vote of confidence for the formerly blacklisted country, which the sustainable cotton nonprofit said has “come a long way” from its state-sanctioned use of child and forced labor to harvest the fiber.

Years of campaigning, plus a decade-plus-long freeze-out by brands and retailers, have triggered extensive government-led labor reforms in the world’s sixth-largest cotton producer. In March, the International Labor Organization declared Uzbek cotton “free” of forced and child labor. The same month, the global coalition known as the Cotton Campaign called off its boycott. The Central Asian nation, it said, has demonstrated that it is able to harvest cotton “almost entirely” without coercion.

“For the first time, independent monitors did not document systemic, government-imposed forced labor organized by the central government in any of the areas monitored,” a report by the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, a frontline partner of the Cotton Campaign, noted at the time. “Although there were some incidents of forced mobilization of state employees imposed by government officials, it was not on a scale that suggests it was coordinated by the central government.”

In September, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) struck Uzbek cotton off its annual list of goods produced by child labor or forced labor in recognition of its “significant advancement.”

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Now, Better Cotton wants to “build on the success.” Commercial incentives that link Uzbekistan’s cotton farmers to international markets, it said, can help coax the newly privatized sector to maintain its trajectory while hitting international goalposts.

By implementing the Better Cotton Standard System, a “holistic” approach to cotton production that spans environmental, social and economic principles, the Geneva- and London-based organization will provide “robust and credible” decent-work monitoring systems that can demonstrate impact and measure results. Better Cotton will also introduce physical traceability, ensuring that cotton from licensed farms is fully segregated and traced through the value chain. Any licensed Better Cotton from Uzbekistan, it noted, will not be sold, at present, via the mass balance chain of custody, a controversial scheme that allows Better Cotton to be substituted or mixed with an equivalent amount of conventional cotton after ginning and spinning.

Better Cotton already has a head start. The International Finance Corporation and German developmental agency GIZ began piloting Better Cotton Principles and Criteria, its practice-based standard, in Uzbekistan in 2017. The pilots, the initiative said, provided a “strong entry point” for its program, with 12 large farms already benefiting from “significant” training. The six that have maintained participation are now engaged in the program’s 2022-23 cotton season. All of them, it added, have been assessed against the Better Cotton Principles and Criteria by trained third-party verifiers.

A growing shift to mechanization has eased the pressure on Uzbekistan’s mahalla, or district, councils to recruit residents to pick cotton in their quarters. Better Cotton said that participating farms that still rely on manual picking received additional decent work monitoring visits, documentation reviews and hundreds of worker, community and management interviews with a focus on labor risks “due to the country’s past challenges.”

The findings, which were “documented and discussed” with technical labor experts, contributed to the organization’s “enhanced assurance activities,” confirming that no systemic forced labor was present on any of the farms. As with other Better Cotton countries, not all participating farms received a license this season. Better Cotton said it will continue to support both the farms that received licenses as well as those who did not through its capacity-building efforts so they can continually improve their practices.

But potential pitfalls in the country still remain, Allison Gill, forced labor program director at Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights, a member of the Cotton Campaign, previously told Sourcing Journal. Key risks campaigners have identified, she said, include a lack of independent and credible monitoring, and grievance and remedy for workers at various stages of cotton production, including at the field level. There are also “serious” restrictions on freedom of association, expression and assembly, and a lack of independent trade unions.

“Removing Uzbek cotton from the [DOL’s] list does not simply give a green light to buyers, it’s more like a yellow light; buyers need to assess the human rights risks that remain and ensure they are addressed,” Gill said. “That’s why we have called on the government to remove restrictions to the enabling environment for labor rights.” The Cotton Campaign is also working on its own pilot, one that will rally Uzbek producers, workers, and international brands to “ensure labor rights are respected in the whole cotton supply chain,” she added.

As Better Cotton begins its work in Uzbekistan, it’s concentrating on areas where progress still needs to be made, including ensuring worker voice and protection through the “effective implementation” of labor unions and the “appropriate use” of worker contracts, it said.

“We are energized by the progress that has been but do not expect our journey ahead to be without challenges,” Better Cotton said. “We will succeed together thanks to a solid foundation, strong partnerships and commitment from all involved stakeholders.”

Better Cotton previously suspended its program from China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, another cotton forced-labor hotspot. The move led to the creation of a homegrown cotton sustainability standard that many regard as a direct repudiation of what the China Cotton Association has derided as “Swiss standards.” The initiative still operates in the Yangtze River and Yellow River Basins, supporting farmers in the Hebei, Hubei and Shandong provinces.