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Uzbek Cotton Boycott Ends After Decade-Plus Freeze-Out

A broad coalition of retail trade associations, human-rights organizations and investor groups has called off a decade-plus-long global boycott of cotton from Uzbekistan, citing a breakthrough in the elimination of systematic child and forced labor from the Central Asian nation’s cotton fields.

The move coincides with the release of a report by the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, a frontline partner of the Cotton Campaign, which found for the first time in 11 years of consecutive monitoring no state-sanctioned modern slavery during the most recent cotton harvest, marking a “landmark achievement” that it said could help open Uzbekistan’s textile industry to international markets.

“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,” the report said. “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.”

Uzbekistan, it added, has demonstrated that it is able to harvest cotton “almost entirely” without coercion, a result of growing mechanization, increasing wages for cotton pickers, the abolishment of state regulation of cotton production and sales, and effective communication by the central government of its policies prohibiting modern slavery in cotton fields.

The Uzbek Forum’s findings dovetail with those of the International Labor Organization, which revealed a week ago that roughly 2 million children and half a million adults have been removed from coerced labor since government reforms began. It, too, concluded that the “world’s largest recruitment effort” was free of child and forced labor.

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“My colleagues and I have been looking forward to this day for years,” Bennett Freeman, co-founder of the Cotton Campaign, said at a press briefing organized by Uzbekistan’s ministry of employment and labor on Thursday. “This achievement is the most significant single-country victory in the global battle against forced labor so far in the 21st century.”

More than 330 brands and retailers, including Adidas, Gap, H&M and Zara owner Inditex, have signed the Campaign’s Uzbek Cotton Pledge Against Forced Labor since the dragooning of teachers, students, doctors, engineers and others to harvest cotton made headlines in 2009. The boycott was so successful that demand for Uzbek cotton plummeted from 50 percent of the country’s exports to less than 1 percent.

“The pledge started as a way to pull together onto one website 20 individual commitments of international brands and retailers, and it grew to be a major catalyst for reform,” said Patricia Jurewicz, co-founder of the Cotton Campaign and CEO of Responsible Sourcing Network.

“Due to the improvements [that] the independent monitors have observed, the Cotton Campaign announces [that] we are lifting the pledge and ending our call for a global boycott of Uzbek cotton,” Jurewicz added. “Now it will be up to individual companies to do their own assessments of risks and make their own policy and sourcing decisions. We look forward to working with international brands, Uzbek workers, farmers, government and independent monitors to implement due-diligence approaches aligned with international norms.”

A ‘fresh look’ at Uzbek cotton

Now is the time for brands and retailers to take a “fresh look” at sourcing in Uzbekistan, said Julia Hughes, president of the United States Fashion Industry Association. “We will be sharing with the industry today’s opening for sourcing with the reliance on the concrete independent mechanisms for labor-rights assurances and look forward to working together hand in hand.”

The American apparel and footwear industry does not tolerate forced labor, said Nate Herman, senior vice president of policy at the American Apparel & Footwear Association, pointing to the U.S. forced labor statute, which prevents the importation of any products made wholly or in part with modern slavery.

“Our longstanding partnership with the diverse members of the Cotton Campaign and the signatories of the cotton pledge, and the holistic approach [that] we implemented together with the U.S. and foreign governments, the Uzbek government and international institutions to address the scourge of forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields, has led us to the success we are celebrating today.”

There are a “lot of international factors” that will help drive interest in Uzbek cotton, Sherman added, alluding to reports of forced labor by persecuted Muslim minorities in China’s cotton-rich Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. “Now that the cotton pledge is gone, it’s an opportunity for the Uzbek industry to start participating in U.S. trade events and U.S. trade shows [and] start advertising and getting the word out about what it can do.”

The Uzbek Forum’s report warned, however, that several factors still threaten the “long-term durability” of the hard-won progress, including the lack of freedom of association for independent monitoring and reporting of labor-rights violations. Issues in population density can result in a shortage of voluntary pickers in certain areas or stages of the harvest, while the “persistent” involvement or interference of government officials in the organization of the harvest can lead to the strong-arming of farmers and cotton pickers. Other risks can stem from a dearth of “fair and effective” enlistment systems for seasonal labor or the reliance on local officials to recruit labor in some places, which can give rise to the use of or perception of coercion.

“However, overall, the 2021 findings represent a meaningful break from Uzbekistan’s long history of state-imposed forced labor and provide a strong measure of confidence that improvements to reduce existing labor rights risks can be made,” said Allison Gill, forced labor program director at Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights. “We recognize this as a landmark achievement, and one that represents a real turning point for labor rights in Uzbekistan and for the emerging textile industry”

While Uzbekistan still harbors ongoing risks, Gill said, it also presents a “tremendous opportunity.” The country is building a vertically integrated cotton and textile industry where fiber can be traced from “fields to finish,” providing brands and retailers with an “unprecedented opportunity for visibility and traceability down to the raw material level. unlike almost any other sourcing country in the world,” she said. To do this, however, the central government must allow civil society and labor organizations to develop and establish “concrete mechanisms” for worker voice and protection. Brands and suppliers must also “invest in workers’ rights” and maintain “high standards for the industry.”

What about Xinjiang cotton?

Raluca Dumitrescu, a coordinator at the Cotton Campaign, encourages brands and retailers to look at Uzbekistan as a “potential new partner” for sourcing yarn and cotton textiles but only if it’s done in a responsible way that benefits Uzbek workers. More than 1.5 million pick cotton during harvest time every year, she said, and another 400,000 people work in other stages of cotton production. These numbers will increase as the sector ramps up.

“We must ensure these are decent jobs with fair and safe working conditions and respect for workers’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining,” she said. “Brands and retailers, Uzbek cotton producers and the government of Uzbekistan now have the chance to create a new model for producing and sourcing cotton goods: a model that ensures full transparency about labor practices at all stages of production, including the cotton farms, spinners, fabric mills and manufacturing units.”

Dumitrescu said she believed that Uzbekistan has the potential to become a key sourcing country for sustainable textiles. But this is only possible if all stakeholders play their part to foster the conditions for responsible sourcing. “We must work together to create robust mechanisms for monitoring, capacity building and grievance which are essential to ensure decent work,” she added.

With a growing crackdown on Xinjiang cotton, which makes up a significant amount of the world’s supply, there’s a “real opportunity” for Uzbekistan, said Gill, who, together with Freeman, helped found the End Uyghur Forced Labor coalition.

“As Uzbekistan has engaged in this reform process, globally, the laws around forced labor have really tightened, in part, as a reaction to the Xinjiang crisis, but also to the global problem of forced labor,” she added. “So now brands and retailers are working to try to map their supply chains to understand their sourcing, and to take more responsibility for the labor conditions in their supply chain. And as they begin to leave Xinjiang…they’ll be looking elsewhere.”

The corporate response to the Uzbek and Uyghur campaigns couldn’t be more different. To date, the latter call to action only has nine signatories, including Asos, Eileen Fisher, Marks & Spencer and Reformation—none of which have significant exposure to the Chinese market—amounting to less than 3 percent of the cotton pledge’s endorsers.

This is due in no small measure to China’s economic muscle, Freeman told Sourcing Journal after the press conference. Brands and retailers have ample cause for concern that a Beijing-boosted backlash will tank their bottom lines, as the likes of Adidas, H&M and Nike have already experienced. There’s also a matter of volume. Before the boycott, Uzbekistan was only the fifth-largest producer of cotton in the world, meaning exporters had their pick of alternatives. Xinjiang, on the other hand, supplies 85 percent of China’s cotton, which in turn makes up 20 percent of the global share.

Still, both the Ethical Trading Initiative and the Fair Labor Association, which include many of the apparel industry’s boldface names as members, feature similar language that is “one degree of separation” from the Uyghur pledge, Freeman said. The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which President Biden signed into law in December and will roll out in June, will also force brands and retailers to divest from Xinjiang cotton without having to explicitly endorse the campaign.

The bill “essentially puts into U.S. law most if not all of the elements of the call to action, and the coalition played a critical, instrumental role—though not the only one—in getting that passed and signed,” he added. “We’ve finally recognized that Xinjiang is far and away the largest forced-labor problem in the world.”