Global Coalition Encourages Responsible Sourcing that Protects Workers’ Rights
TASHKENT, Uzbekistan (March 10, 2022) – The Cotton Campaign today announced it ends its call for a global boycott of Uzbek cotton. The announcement comes as Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, a frontline partner of the Cotton Campaign, releases its report finding no central government-imposed forced labor in the 2021 harvest.
This historic achievement comes after years of persistent engagement by Uzbek activists, international advocates, and multinational brands, together with a commitment by the government of Uzbekistan to end its use of forced labor. The Cotton Campaign, a global coalition of human rights, labor, responsible investor, and business organizations, encourages responsible sourcing from the country, to ensure the reforms continue to benefit Uzbek workers, farmers, and civil society.
“This breakthrough in ending systematic, state-imposed forced labor was catalyzed by the brave labor and human rights defenders in Uzbekistan who took great risks to expose human rights violations in the cotton sector. Their years of fearless monitoring and reporting drove the world to take action to protect Uzbek workers,” said Umida Niyazova, director of Uzbek Forum for Human Rights.
Responding to a petition by Uzbek civil society activists calling for a boycott of Uzbek cotton in 2009, companies began making individual commitments and the Cotton Campaign launched its Uzbek Cotton Pledge Against Forced Labor. Since then, 331 brands and retailers signed the Uzbek Cotton Pledge, including many of the world’s largest brands including C&A, Gap Inc., and Tesco.
“After encouraging hundreds of companies to avoid Uzbek cotton over the past 12 years, we’re happy to announce the time has come to lift the Uzbek Cotton Pledge,” said Patricia Jurewicz, CEO of Responsible Sourcing Network and Cotton Campaign co-founder. Companies now need to conduct due diligence and make their own policy decisions regarding sourcing in Uzbekistan.”
Although Uzbek Forum’s report found that cotton was harvested without systematic state-imposed forced labor, the monitors found cases of coercion and interference by local authorities, as well as individual cases of forced labor. In addition, independent groups that conduct field level monitoring and capacity building are unable to register and operate freely, putting progress at risk.
Given repressive policies that limit freedom of association in Uzbekistan, and supply chain practices that have contributed to eroding labor standards in garment producing countries around the world, both the Uzbek government and brands must take the next steps to ensure not only the end of forced labor but also to support workers’ rights as the industry is poised to grow. Uzbekistan has the potential to become an attractive sourcing country for cotton textiles, offering new state-of-the-art facilities and the possibility of full supply chain visibility and traceability.
“Today we are celebrating, but our work continues to help build a fair and humane industry going forward,” said Allison Gill, Cotton Campaign Steering Committee member and Forced Labor Program Director for GLJ-ILRF. “We have the opportunity to create a new kind of supply chain, in which suppliers and brands have real transparency about labor practices and can invest in workers’ rights and maintain high labor standards. Instead of forcing producers to compete for the lowest prices and in turn, push labor standards down, brands should work with suppliers and labor organizations to develop a responsible business model, based on fair purchasing practices, to ensure decent work at all levels of the supply chain.”
The Cotton Campaign urges all brands that are interested to begin sourcing from Uzbekistan to conduct human rights due diligence to ensure labor rights are respected at all stages of production, including the cotton farms, spinners, fabric mills, and manufacturing units, and that there are credible, independent mechanisms in place for forced labor prevention, monitoring, grievance, and remedy.
“We commend President Mirziyoyev’s leadership in initiating and implementing the historic reforms necessary to end state-imposed forced labor and reform Uzbekistan’s cotton sector,” said Bennett Freeman, Cotton Campaign co-founder and former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. “Now we challenge the Government of Uzbekistan to open space for civil society and to create the enabling environment essential for responsible sourcing that will attract global brands and protect labor and human rights.”
Members of the Cotton Campaign said:
“At this new stage in the Cotton Campaign’s work, as we encourage responsible sourcing from Uzbekistan, I look forward to working with brands, Uzbek cotton producers, civil society, and the government of Uzbekistan to ensure that the emerging textile industry provides decent work and strong protections for labor rights, including freedom of association and collective bargaining. Our Coalition members – human and labor rights NGOs, independent trade unions, responsible investors and brand associations – stand ready to provide expertise and resources to build capacity and create an enabling environment for labor rights in Uzbekistan”, said Raluca Dumitrescu, Coordinator of the Cotton Campaign.
“The progress in Uzbekistan since the early days of the Cotton Campaign is incredible, and the government deserves credit for transforming the cotton sector to where it is today. As we know from responsible sourcing attempts around the world, however, that top-down change must be met by ground-up capacity building to document and obtain remedy for violations of fundamental labor rights. Working conditions and respect for rights only improve when workers lead the change,” said Shawna Bader-Blau, Executive Director of the Solidarity Center.
“The most recent harvest findings show there is a real possibility of establishing just working conditions in the Uzbek cotton sector. We are heartened to see some farmer and worker organizations starting to come together in Uzbekistan to collectively bargain for improved conditions. However, significant legal and practical barriers remain. Trade unions and other civil society organizations must be able to operate freely to ensure the durability of the reforms implemented over the last few years,” said Abby McGill, Senior Program Officer, Europe and Central Asia, Solidarity Center.
“Anti-Slavery International celebrates with the Cotton Campaign coalition the elimination of state-imposed forced labour from Uzbekistan’s cotton fields. Along with members of the coalition, for over a decade we have tirelessly advocated for the freedom of the Uzbek people. Today we welcome this news, a result of constructive direct engagement with the government of Uzbekistan and economic pressure from the private sector. But as we celebrate, it is important to remember that further reform is still needed to make sure that all cotton workers in Uzbekistan can enjoy their right to decent work,” said Jasmine O’Connor, CEO of Anti-Slavery International.
“Brave human rights defenders in Uzbekistan who at their own risk over many years have exposed forced labor are the real heroes at this important moment. The Uzbek government should lift restrictions on activists and non-governmental groups to enable them to monitor forced labor and ensure this terrible abuse does not return,” said Hugh Williamson, Director, Europe & Central Asia, Human Rights Watch.
“Cleaning up the Uzbekistan cotton supply chain from child and forced labor is an important but only first step on the way to fair labor relations and decent work. The next step should be enabling Freedom of Association,” said Markhaba Khalmurzaeva, Coordinator, Central Asia Labour Rights Monitoring Mission.
“The latest harvest findings demonstrate that it is possible to create a framework that allows for a new economic model that creates greater justice for workers. The AFL-CIO looks forward to continuing working with partners to establish an environment in which workers can fully exercise their rights in Uzbekistan,” said Cathy Feingold, International Director, AFL-CIO.
“We are proud to be part of the 10 year campaign to end child and forced labor in the Uzbek cotton harvest. Progress has been made, children are no longer forced to work in the fields but without independent trade unions, there is no guarantee that this progress will be sustained,” said Sue Longley, General Secretary of the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF).
“As Uzbekistan cotton returns to the world market, the EU must remain vigilant. Child labour can always reappear if democratic institutions and trade unions rights are not respected,” said Kristjan Bragason, General Secretary of the European Federation of Food, Agricultural and Tourism Workers (EFFAT).
“The American apparel and footwear industry does not tolerate forced labor. As such, our industry makes every effort to identify, root out, and eliminate forced labor in our supply chains. Our longstanding partnership with the diverse members of the Cotton Campaign and the signatories of the Cotton Pledge — and the holistic approach we implemented, together, with the U.S. and foreign governments, the Uzbek government, and international institutions to address the scourge of forced labor of Uzbekistan’s cotton fields — has led us to the success we are celebrating today. We must continue to work together to not only sustain these successes over the long run, but provide the necessary assurances to brands to ensure that Uzbekistan’s cotton, textile, and apparel industry becomes the global market leaders they should be,” said Steve Lamar, President and CEO of American Apparel & Footwear Association.
“The United States Fashion Industry Association is proud to support the Cotton Campaign, and the Cotton Pledge, during this decade-long endeavor to rid the Uzbekistan cotton supply chain of child and forced labor. USFIA, and the brands and retailers we represent, oppose any form of forced labor in the global apparel supply chain. We applaud the findings from the 2021 cotton harvest that Uzbekistan has achieved the elimination of systemic forced labor from cotton production. We encourage brands and retailers to take a fresh look at sourcing opportunities in Uzbekistan and to work with the Cotton Campaign to maintain responsible sourcing and robust due diligence in Uzbekistan. We also encourage the Government of Uzbekistan to make further progress in establishing the enabling environment for responsible sourcing—including the registration of NGOs working to monitor cotton harvests—in order to address remaining risks to labor and human rights and to assure brands that they can source from Uzbekistan with confidence,” said Julia Hughes, President of the U.S. Fashion Industry Association.
“Investors’ deep concern and respect for human rights, as detailed in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) and the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Business Conduct, calls us to address the forced labor situation in the Cotton Industry. Mercy Investment Services has worked with the Cotton Campaign and supported the Cotton Pledge to address forced labor in Uzbekistan. The findings of independent civil society monitoring the 2021 cotton harvest shows that Uzbekistan has successfully eliminated state-imposed forced labor in cotton production. Mercy is pleased to acknowledge this breakthrough while at the same time calling for continued due diligence by all companies in the Uzbek textile industry, urging them to establish and maintain strong labor standards and engage with the Cotton Campaign,” said Patricia Zerega, Director of Shareholder Advocacy at Mercy Investment Services.