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Citing COVID-19 Crisis, Uzbekistan Ramps Up Pressure on Cotton Campaign to End Boycott

Uzbekistan’s Labor Minister has written a letter to the Cotton Campaign calling for an end to its boycott of cotton from the country to ease the economic pressure caused by COVID-19.

The minister, Nozim Khusanov, noted the government of Uzbekistan is taking action to support the economy, including establishing a $1.05 billion COVID-19 support fund, but said many Uzbeks will remain vulnerable to the downturn. The Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations of Uzbekistan estimates that 1.5 million Uzbeks are currently unemployed.

Khusanov’s open letter to the senior leadership of the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of human rights, labor and business organizations, asks its members to lift a global boycott on Uzbek cotton first established in 2006 due to historic reliance on forced and child labor in the Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest. More than 300 global brands and retailers have signed a pledge not to source Uzbek cotton, hampering export growth and the development of the country’s textile industry.

He noted that senior representatives of the Cotton Campaign visited Uzbekistan in late January as part of their ongoing dialogue with Uzbek governmental and civil society stakeholders. As detailed by the ILO as part of its monitoring of the 2019 cotton harvest, “systematic forced labor did not occur during the 2019 cotton harvest” and “systematic or systemic child labor is no longer used during the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan.”

“The issue is less whether to end the Pledge, but when and how, and above all, how ending it can become a catalyst for responsible sourcing and investment in a reforming Uzbekistan,” Bennett Freeman, co-founder of the Cotton Campaign, said.

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On March 6, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev signed a historic decree to end state directives over the production, pricing, and sale of cotton, ending a quota system in place for nearly a century.

While saying the lifting of the boycott is warranted in light of the demonstrable progress in protecting human rights and social welfare in Uzbekistan, Khusanov issued this “urgent” call given the “extraordinary pressure” facing the labor market in Uzbekistan. Lifting of the cotton boycott is one of the few measures that could quickly generate much-needed jobs and support the economic well-being of Uzbeks during the coronavirus crisis, the minister said.

Textile production employs 200,000 workers in Uzbekistan, and their wages support the livelihoods of 1 million people.

Khusanov invited the Cotton Campaign to “continue to work collaboratively” with the Uzbek government in order to enter a “new chapter of reform.” The minister seeks to draw on the expertise of Cotton Campaign member organizations “to consolidate the progress made in eliminating forced labor, to support ongoing monitoring efforts, and to assist in the introduction of sustainability and social responsibility commitments across the value chain.”

The letter concludes by asking the leaders of the Cotton Campaign to “consider an end to the boycott as an act of solidarity towards the Uzbek people” enabling them to “secure their livelihoods in these difficult times and to look to the future with greater optimism.”

“The Uzbek government has taken significant steps toward ending systemic forced labor and enacting structural reforms, two priority pillars of our Roadmap of Reforms,” Allison Gill, Cotton Campaign coordinator for the International Labor Rights Forum, said. “But progress has lagged on the third pillar, empowering civil society, including registering independent NGOs and creating space for workers to organize independently.

“We urge the government to allow a free and vibrant civil society to develop,” Gill added, “which will help promote transparency and accountability and create a climate for responsible investment.”