A coalition of four trade associations representing the US apparel and retail industries yesterday (18 August) called on the president of Uzbekistan to put an end to forced child labour in the country's cotton fields.

A letter addressed to President Islam Abduganievich Karimov was hand-delivered to the country's Ambassador HE Abdulaziz Kamilov in Washington, DC.

The delivery of the letter took place after an earlier meeting with the Ambassador on Friday (15 August) was cancelled.

The associations are alarmed by reports alleging that Uzbekistan, the world's third largest cotton exporter, forces children as young as 10-15 years old to harvest cotton.

"Our member companies are firmly committed to sourcing in countries respectful of human and workers' rights," the coalition stated in its letter to President Karimov.

"In fact, this commitment is embedded in their supplier codes of conduct which guide them to source in countries and with business partners that follow workplace standards consistent with international labour standards."

A vital sector of the Uzbekistan economy, cotton represents 20% of the country's exports, and ultimately accounts for over 15% of its gross domestic product (GDP).

However, a growing number of North American and European companies and retailer brands have already taken measures to exclude Uzbek cotton from their merchandise because of the abuse of children in the cotton fields.

And more companies are likely to follow if sweeping improvements are not made soon.

Any action taken by companies to limit or exclude the use of Uzbek cotton would have harmful consequences for the Uzbek government and its economy.

The group noted, however, that numerous resources, including the International Labor
Organization (ILO), are available to help Uzbekistan resolve this issue as well as ensure that the affected children (and their families) are not displaced without any sort of safety net or transitional assistance.

The members of the retail and apparel coalition members are the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA), the National Retail Federation (NRF), the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) and the US Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel (USA-ITA).

Together these groups represent more than 90% of the US purchases of cotton and cotton-based merchandise.

The coalition also wants other organisations to get involved with the issue of forced child labour in Uzbekistan.

It has sent letters voicing its concerns to the ILO, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the British Retail Consortium, the Canadian Apparel Federation, the Retail Council of Canada, the EuroCommerce, the Foreign Trade Association and the European Apparel and Textile Organisation (EURATEX).