Faced with ongoing international criticism and a ban on the use of Uzbek cotton by more than 136 international apparel brands and retailers, the country's government is for the first time allowing the International Labor Organization (ILO) to carry out inspections during the 2013 cotton harvest.

However, the US-based Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN), which has coordinated the so-called 'Cotton Pledge', says ILO representatives are being accompanied by Uzbek officials, making it difficult for workers to speak openly with ILO monitors.

The update comes as cotton merchants head to Uzbekistan for its annual cotton fair, which started yesterday (16 October).

Apparel powerhouses such as Carrefour, Inditex, Target, and Walmart have already pledged not to use Uzbek cotton as part of efforts to stop the country using forced and child labour in its harvest. They have most recently been joined by Marks & Spencer and Lululemon Athletica.

The RSN says: "There cannot be a stronger message to the Government of Uzbekistan (GOU) than having a trillion-dollar worth of the apparel industry stating they do not want any form of slave labour entering the global market and taking actions to block it."

But it also claims that since the start of the harvest around 6 September there has been continued forced mobilisation of children and adults to pick cotton or pay fines.

"The message being sent by the industry is that the GOU must meet its commitments to international labour standards in order to participate in global markets.

"If it doesn't, RSN is committed to increasingly minimising options for the selling of cotton by the Uzbek government."

Local media reports say the prime minister opened the Ninth International Uzbek Cotton and Textile Fair in Tashkent with a vow to replace manual cotton picking with machinery over the next three years.

3,000 of the units will apparently be produced by the Tashkent Tractor Plant in 2014 - with up to 90% of cotton being machine-picked by 2016.

However, groups say they will continue the ban on Uzbek cotton until the International Labor Organization (ILO) independently verifies the end of forced labour.

The RSN expects companies taking part in its pledge to create an internal policy against purchasing cotton picked with forced child labour from Uzbekistan and then notifying all of their suppliers.

Part of the problem is that difficulties in identifying the country of origin of cotton in a huge trade flow make it hard to enforce the ban. Which is why some activists also want the boycott of Uzbek cotton and textiles extended to include the companies that use them, as well as foreign investors and partners in Uzbek textile companies.