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Uzbek Cotton Boycott: As Decision Approaches, Fashion Needs Assurances

In mid-April, Sourcing Journal reported on an open letter from the Uzbekistan government asking the Cotton Campaign, and brands and retailers, to end the boycott of Uzbek cotton. Our two industry groups—the American Apparel & Footwear Association and the U.S. Fashion Industry Association, with more than 1,200 members—have long supported the Uzbek Cotton Pledge to which more than 300 North American and European companies have committed to not knowingly source cotton from Uzbekistan until forced labor has been eliminated.

We strongly believe that ending the boycott will be a catalyst for responsible sourcing and investment in a reforming Uzbekistan. However, for that to happen, brands will need assurances on human and labor rights first.

Let’s add some background to the discussion. Our organizations and our members have been working with the Cotton Campaign since before the creation of the pledge. Our industry took action for three reasons: first, the scale of forced labor was massive, with upwards of one million people forcibly mobilized each year to pick cotton; second, the government played a role in directing the mobilization of workers and overseeing production; and third, it was clear that a boycott was feasible and would be an effective tool to spur corrective action by the Uzbek government.

Additionally, local and exiled civil society activists asked the international community to boycott Uzbekistan’s cotton, and have courageously carried the torch for reform for years amidst harsh repression, which now is lessening.

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We acknowledge and appreciate the reform process initiated by President Mirziyoyev in late 2017 to end forced labor. The reforms have been meaningful and we applaud them. But before the Cotton Campaign and brands can return to business as usual in Uzbekistan, there is more work to be done.

First, Uzbekistan must overcome the legacy of coercion in the cotton fields dating back nearly a century. Significant progress has indeed been made toward ending systemic forced labor and advancing structural reforms, two of the three core objectives set forth in the Cotton Campaign’s Roadmap of Reforms presented to the Uzbek government with our support in June 2019. However, the ILO estimates that at least 102,000 people were forced to pick cotton in the late 2019 harvest. This is a significant reduction from its peak just several years ago, but still an unacceptable level for our members who have zero tolerance for forced labor in their supply chains and that cannot source or import product produced in whole or in part with forced labor, consistent with U.S. law.

We are encouraged by the government’s announcement in March that it is ending cotton production quotas and enforcement of their delivery, which have been the primary structural drivers of massive forced labor.

Second, at the same time, reform in Uzbekistan must catch up with the past two decades of international standards and corporate expectations. Global apparel brands and retailers publicly commit to respect labor and human rights and to demonstrate responsible sourcing from fields to factories. Even as reform moves forward, Uzbekistan is competing with other countries that have been working with brands and meeting these requirements.

Apparel brands look for countries with governments that strive to respect basic civic freedoms—freedom of association, assembly and expression—and allow space for civil society voices and advocates. We are concerned that progress toward the third core objective of the Cotton Campaign’s Roadmap—empowering civil society—is lagging.

We know that ending systemic forced labor and advancing structural reforms depends on empowering civil society in the process. Therefore, we call on the Uzbek government to hasten the registration of independent labor and human rights NGOs, and to update the NGO code.

We are optimistic for the future. Together with other members of the Cotton Campaign, Uzbek civil society, and local and global businesses, we are contributing to the development of a responsible sourcing agreement. We believe that a cooperative framework to protect labor rights in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry is necessary.

These responsible sourcing agreements would be enforceable and adhere to international labor rights standards and guidelines. They would include independent monitoring, grievance mechanisms, and remediation for workers and farmers alike; tracking responsibly harvested cotton through the supply chain; and requiring suppliers to report on their due diligence efforts to prevent and mitigate any remaining forced labor. Our objective is not only to protect but also to empower and advance cotton pickers, farm workers and farmers.

Brands, along with their Cotton Campaign allies, are still waiting for the assurances that will give us confidence that sourcing cotton products responsibly from Uzbekistan is both possible and desirable. We want to contribute to the social and economic development of a modern Uzbekistan that is creating new opportunities for its people.

At a time when COVID-19 is crippling the global economy and disrupting supply chains in every industry, it is more important and urgent than ever for the Uzbek government to accelerate and complete this historic process of reform.

Julia K. Hughes is president of the U.S. Fashion Industry Association and Nate Herman is senior vice president, policy for the American Apparel and Footwear Association.