Move to lift forced labour stigma over Uzbek cotton

Move to lift forced labour stigma over Uzbek cotton
A cotton-picking themed mural in Uzbekistan.
By Kanat Shaku in Almaty January 24, 2019

Some of the world’s top clothes brands could soon be persuaded to lift their boycott on Uzbek cotton if the government of Uzbekistan is successful with a renewed lobbying push promising to end all forced and child labour in the Central Asian country.

Uzbek Deputy Prime Minister Tanzila Narbayeva and Minister of Employment and Labour Relations Sherzod Kudbiyev will lead a government delegation to the US on February 4-6 to take part in the Cotton Campaign’s annual meeting, the Uzbek embassy in the US and the Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairs have announced. Winning round brands that presently refuse to use Uzbek cotton—including Nike, Zara, GAP, Levi’s, H&M and UNIQLO—would amount to a valuable breakthrough for Uzbekistan’s Mirziyoyev administration. For the past two years it has been reforming the country’s business, economic and human rights environments in an effort to bring the nation in from the cold following the death of autocrat Islam Karimov in late 2016.

A big Uzbekistan investment roadshow held in Berlin last week represented the latest major Uzbek effort to bring in foreign investment, and later this year Tashkent hopes to issue its first ever eurobond. The Uzbeks are also edging towards privatising their valuable gold producers.

Uzbekistan, a country of 33.3mn people, is one of the world's largest exporters of cotton. The ex-Soviet state’s annual cotton harvest amounts to approximately 3mn tonnes.

Working with the Cotton Campaign
The Cotton Campaign is a coalition of human rights organisations, trade unions, investors and business associations who seek to end forced labour practices involving children and adults in cotton picking. The Uzbek delegation hopes to work with the Cotton Campaign on ending the boycott of Uzbek-produced cotton and textile products by major US brands. A wide range of international brands has pledged to maintain a boycott of Uzbek cotton due to continued use of forced and child labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry.  

The Uzbek delegation will meet with representatives of human rights organisations, major American manufacturers associations, major brands, retailers and trade unions. That includes the American Apparel and Footwear Association, the United States Fashion Industry Association, the American Federation of Labour, the Congress of Industrial Organisations.

In the US, the delegation is also set to hold negotiations with representatives of the White House, the Department of State, the Department of Labor and international financial institutions. Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev met President Donald Trump at the White House last year and was praised there by various US officials for his reform efforts.

In the past two years, Uzbekistan has taken significant steps towards abolishing the labour practices which campaigners and the major brands want to see ended. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) said in a November 2018 release that most forced labour had been eliminated from the country’s cotton fields. It estimated that 93% of those involved in the 2018 cotton harvest worked voluntarily.

Findings doubted
However, rights groups quickly cast doubt on the findings. They criticised the report for not emphasising the importance of eliminating the remnants of involuntary labour in the country.

On January 15, the Cotton Campaign quoted Umida Niyazova, director of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF), as saying that UGF’s “monitors found that regional and district officials ordered state organisations and businesses to send employees or pay for replacement workers to pick cotton and sign statements stating they were working voluntarily”.

“Some of the forced pickers were from republic-level law enforcement and military agencies, which could not have sent employees without authorisation from the central government,” Niyazova noted.

The UGF’s independent monitors acquired documents demonstrating that around 30% of employees of state-owned enterprises were assigned to cotton-picking brigades. The Uzbek Metallurgical Plant, for instance, was said to have mobilised 36% of its workforce, some 3,200 workers, to pick cotton. The UGF based that claim on a document it obtained dated 19 September 2018.