Uzbekistan, one of the world’s top producers of cotton, wants the international boycott of its cotton to be over. Due to years of state-sponsored forced labor in which civil servants, teachers, and doctors were made to pick cotton during the annual harvest, textile brands have moved away from sourcing Uzbek cotton.
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For one, the Responsible Sourcing Network started the “Uzbek Cotton Pledge,” which commits brands to not use cotton from the country as long as forced labor exists. So far, over 300 companies have signed the pledge, including Adidas, Amazon, Disney, Reebok, and Nike.
In recent years the government has taken steps to reduce forced and child labor during the harvest according to the International Labour Organization. Yet is progress enough to warrant a lift of the boycott when there is evidence that forced labor is still occurring in the country’s cotton harvest?
Supply Chain Dive reports:
The government of Uzbekistan wants the boycott against its cotton industry to be over. But it might be hard to convince international brands to begin sourcing from the country as forced labor was still prevalent in the most recent harvest, Eric Gottwald, the deputy director of the International Labor Rights Forum.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) has monitored Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest as an independent third party, and its most recent report highlighted signs of improvement. Child labor no longer appears to be an issue (though that’s been the case for a number of years now, an ILO representative said), the government itself is not exacting forced labor and the number of forced laborers involved in the harvest is on the decline.
Still, about 170,000 people are forced to work during harvest for no pay, ILO found. This number represents about 6.8% of the workforce, down from 14% in 2015, according to the ILO.
These improvements are likely not enough to get European or American brands to begin sourcing cotton from Uzbekistan, according to Gottwald.
“State-sponsored forced labor is a significant problem whether we want to call it systemic or not systemic that’s fine, but I don’t think anyone is going to quibble with 170,000 victims of state-sponsored forced labor in 2018,” said Gottwald.
“That’s unacceptable to western brands — full stop. I mean, they will not source from a place that carries that kind of risk.”
Javlon Vakhabov, Uzbekistan’s ambassador to the United States, explained that the country aims to end forced labor in its cotton fields by 2022 through increased use of automated farm equipment and total privatization of the cotton industry, though it is unclear how automation would contribute to Uzbekistan’s separate goal of increasing employment.
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