A boycott against Uzbekistan cotton began in 2006

A boycott against Uzbekistan cotton began in 2006

The first independent and democratic trade union organisation has been formed in Uzbekistan with workers from the cotton plantations of global fibres producer Indorama.

Xalq Birligi (Peoples' Unity) was formed on 19 March in response to what workers claim are "low wages and deteriorating working conditions" in Indorama. The union currently has 280 members.

The move follows more than a decade of pressure by an international coalition of organisations which led campaigns to get the government to end the widespread use of child labour on cotton plantations, to significantly decrease the number of state employees in forced labour, and to ratify key ILO conventions.

While Uzbekistan ratified ILO Convention 87 on Freedom of Association in 2016, Xalq Birligi says authoritarian rule persists and workers have not previously dared to exercise their right to form a trade union outside of the state-controlled Federation of Trade Unions.

Sue Longley, general secretary of the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations (IUF), sent congratulations to Xalq Birligi as well as a warning to the Uzbek government.

"Formation of an independent union in a country where independent union activity was banned for the last three decades is a breakthrough. However, it still remains to be seen if Uzbekistan will fulfill its obligations under ILO Convention 87 and 'take all necessary and appropriate measures to ensure that workers may exercise freely the right to organise.'"

IUF says it will closely monitor the events and will offer support to Xalq Birligi.

A boycott against Uzbekistan cotton began 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.

But the government has been making progress to reform the sector, most recently arguing that removing the cotton boycott could see textile exports double – "growth that would create much-needed jobs" as the country tries to recover from the impact of the coronavirus crisis.

In August last year, the Cotton Campaign presented its proposal for a Responsible Sourcing Agreement framework (RSA) – "an innovative, co-governed agreement to re-open Uzbekistan's cotton sector to the international market while protecting labour rights."

Indorama did not respond to just-style's request for comment at the time of going to press.