The Better Cotton Initiative says the launch of the Better Cotton Programme in Uzbekistan will allow the newly privatised cotton sector to continue to reform and meet international standards through commercial incentives.

The Better Cotton Programme in Uzbekistan has the potential to provide that incentive by linking cotton farmers to international markets and supporting them to continuously improve their practices.

Better Cotton says the implementation of the Better Cotton Standard System will provide robust and credible decent work monitoring systems that can demonstrate impact and results made on the ground. 

It will also introduce physical traceability, under which cotton from licensed farms will be fully segregated and traced through the supply chain. Any licensed Better Cotton from Uzbekistan will, at the present time, not be sold via the mass balance chain of custody.

In March last year, Uzbekistan’s cotton sector was declared forced labour and child labour free by the International Labor Organisation.

An estimated two million children have been taken out of child labour and half a million adults out of forced labour since the reform process of Uzbekistan’s cotton sector began seven years ago, the ILO said.

The data was based on the 2021  ILO Third-Party Monitoring Report of the Cotton Harvest in Uzbekistan’.

The country has long been dogged by systemic use of child and forced labour in the cotton harvest and production processes, with a boycott against Uzbekistan cotton beginning in 2006 over the country’s long-standing practice of using forced labour to pick cotton – and is backed by more than 300 apparel brands and retailers.

Under the leadership of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the country has embarked on reforms that include the modernisation of the country’s former agricultural economic model and the eradication of child labour and forced labour in the annual cotton harvest that was previously prevalent.

Then in October, the US government’s Department of Labour announced it was pumping US$2m into supporting the improvement of labour conditions and preventing forced and child labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry.

“Better Cotton exists to work in contexts with both environmental and social challenges. Uzbekistan’s cotton sector, government and the farms themselves have made enormous progress, and we are looking forward to building on this multi-stakeholder engagement and to drive further positive change across the sector,” says Better Cotton CEO Alan McClay.

The International Finance Corporation and GIZ began piloting the implementation of the Better Cotton Principles and Criteria in Uzbekistan in 2017. The pilots provided a strong entry point for the programme, the groups said, with 12 large farms already benefiting from significant training, six of which have maintained participation. These are the same six farms now participating in the programme during the 2022-23 cotton season. All the farms were assessed against the Better Cotton Principles and Criteria by trained and approved third-party verifiers.

Farms with manual picking received additional decent work monitoring visits that focused on extensive worker and community interviews, along with management interviews and documentation reviews. This additional decent work monitoring looked specifically at labour risks due to the country’s past challenges. In total, nearly 600 workers, management and community leaders, local authorities, and other stakeholders (including civil society actors) were interviewed as part of the decent work monitoring. The findings of these third-party verification visits and the decent work monitoring were documented and discussed with technical labour experts and contributed to the enhanced assurance activities, which confirmed that no systemic forced labour was present on any of the farms. Like in all other Better Cotton countries, not all participating farms received a license this season. Better Cotton says it will continue to support both the farms that received licenses as well as those who were denied licenses through their capacity-building efforts so that they can continuously improve their practices, and are equipped to meet the core requirements of the Standard moving forward.

“As we begin our work in Uzbekistan, we are concentrating on several key areas where progress still needs to be made,” Better Cotton says. “These include ensuring the effective implementation of labour unions and the appropriate use of worker contracts. We are energised by the progress that has been but do not expect our journey ahead to be without challenges. We will succeed together thanks to a solid foundation, strong partnerships, and commitment from all involved stakeholders. We look forward to supporting the continuous improvement of Uzbek cotton production.”