Uzbekistan has agreed a new deal to export 300,000 tonnes of cotton fibre to China, as it seeks new markets to offset a boycott imposed by western firms over the use of forced labour in the cotton harvest.
In addition to the deal with China, Tashkent also reached agreement with Bangladesh to export 200,000 tonnes of fibre in August. The two Asian manufacturing hubs will together account for around five-sixths of Uzbekistan's total cotton fibre exports, which are expected to total around 600,000 tonnes this year.
Uzbek officials are expected to finalise the agreement with China at a cotton industry fair in October, according to RIA Novosti. The new deal will boost China's share of the harvest from around 15% to 50%, making it the single largest buyer of Uzbek cotton.
Uzbekistan is Central Asia's largest cotton producer, with the government forecasting a harvest of 3.35m tonnes in 2013. The Uzbek government is keen to increase domestic processing of locally produced cotton to 50%. At present only 26-28% of the crop is processed domestically, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
Previously, Uzbekistan had a wide range of buyers. However, the country has come under increasing pressure from western buyers to abandon the use of child and forced labour during the cotton harvest, with many western firms now looking to other suppliers.
International clothing manufacturers and retailers including Gap, Levi Strauss, the Inditex group and WalMart have joined a boycott of Uzbek cotton in an attempt to force Tashkent to stop exploiting children in its cotton harvests. As of November, more than 100 companies had joined the boycott, according to the Responsible Sources Network.
In 2013, for the first time, the Uzbek government has agreed to allow limited monitoring by observers from the International Labor Organization (ILO). However, there are still reports of ill-treatment of children and adults in the cotton fields.
Fergana News reports that a six-year-old boy suffocated under a heap of raw cotton on September 15 after going to the fields to help his mother in the fields. Traffic offenders have been sent to the fields to pick cotton this year, while many shops and cafes in the cotton-producing regions have been shut until 7pm to discourage workers from leaving the fields.
Independent journalist Sergei Naumov, who has reported several times about forced labour in the industry, was arrested in September, according to Reporters Without Borders. "The Uzbek government's detention of Sergei is a misguided attempt to silence the Uzbek citizens who report on human rights abuses, including government-orchestrated forced labor in cotton production," says a September 27 statement from The Cotton Campaign. "The case raises serious concerns about the Government's intentions to interfere with the International Labour Organization mission that began monitoring the cotton harvest days before Sergei's arrest."
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