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Uzbekistan is urging a coalition of human rights groups to end their boycott of cotton and textiles sourced from the country to allow it to grow exports and recover amid the impact of the coronavirus crisis.

The Uzbek labour minister Noxim Khusanov sent an open letter to the Cotton Campaign and the International Labour Rights Forum requesting them to consider the country’s progress in ridding its cotton harvests of forced labour.

The letter says removing the cotton boycott could see the country’s export of textiles double – “growth that would create much-needed jobs.”

Uzbekistan’s textile sector is one of the country’s leading sources of employment. In textile production alone, nearly 7,000 enterprises employ more than 200,000 workers, whose incomes support the livelihood of 1m citizens.

However, concerns over Uzbekistan’s practice of forcing citizens employed in the public sector to pick cotton led to a boycott that began in 2006 and is backed by over 300 apparel brands and retailers.

However, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev last month signed a decree ordering the abolition of the state-order system for cotton crops, bringing the nation a step closer to ending forced labour. The decree signed on 9 March would see an end to a decades-old state quota system for the cultivation and sale of cotton starting for the 2020 harvest. It also removed obligations on farmers to participate in cotton production, which experts say should give them more flexibility to plant other cash crops.

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By GlobalData

In February the International Labour Organization (ILO) said that according to its findings, the systematic and systemic use of child labour and forced labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry has come to an end. Despite this, it said 102,000 pickers were recorded as being in forced labour during the harvest in 2019 – although this number was 40% lower than in 2018. And the involuntary recruitment of staff from state institutions, agencies and enterprises still occurs at a local level.

Improvements have stemmed from greater efforts from government law enforcement in 2019. The number of labour inspectors doubled from 200 to 400, and 1,282 forced labour cases were investigated. In January 2020, Mirziyoyev signed new legislation criminalising forced labour.

Khusanov says the legal acts show the government, working in collaboration with economic operators and members of civil society, “is poised to start a new chapter in its transformative reform of the cotton industry in Uzbekistan”.

“Today, the labour market of Uzbekistan is facing extraordinary pressure. Over 1.5m Uzbeks are unemployed. With the country in lockdown, we estimate that nearly 150,000 citizens have already lost their jobs and more than 140,000 migrant workers have returned home without a source of income. More than 200,000 Uzbeks have now fallen below the poverty line. State enterprises, the private sector, and the wider labour market are working to adapt to the new conditions, but the national economy will struggle to generate much-needed employment.

“Here, your decision to end the cotton boycott would be pivotal.

“The resumption of exports to the United States and the European Union could also play an important role in the global response to Covid-19. Textile producers in Uzbekistan have already mobilised in a short period to achieve a tenfold increase in the production of personal protective equipment (PPE) for the domestic market. Face masks, surgical gowns, and other forms of PPE made with Uzbek textiles could potentially help address global shortages.

“We hope you can consider an end to the boycott as an act of solidarity towards the Uzbek people, enabling our citizens to secure their livelihoods in these difficult times and to look to the future with greater optimism.”

“Brands need assurances” 

The Cotton Campaign says it welcomes “the challenge…to end the Uzbek Cotton Pledge.”

“The issue is not whether to end the pledge but when and how to do so, and above all how ending the pledge can become a catalyst for responsible sourcing and investment that supports labour and human rights in a reforming Uzbekistan,” explains Bennett Freeman, Cotton Campaign co-founder and former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights.

The Cotton Campaign says the pledge has been supported by 305 global apparel brands and retailers to not knowingly source cotton from Uzbekistan until forced labour has been eliminated. That evaluation is underway by considering the observations of the 2019 harvest and the overall progress of government activities consistent with the Cotton Campaign’s Roadmap of Reforms put forward in June 2019. 

While it praises the progress made on reforms, it also registers serious concerns over a lack of progress on civil society freedoms and ongoing forced labour in the 2019 harvest.

Commenting on the current crisis around the Covid-19 outbreak and its “devastating effect on the apparel industry worldwide” it says these developments, together with the continuation of significant forced labour in the 2019 harvest, create significant barriers for brands to initiate new sourcing agreements in Uzbekistan.

“We recognise and are heartened by the progress that Uzbekistan has made toward ending forced labour, and members look forward to considering sourcing from Uzbekistan,” adds Nate Herman, senior vice president, policy, at the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA).

“However, given brands’ zero-tolerance policies on forced labour, anti-slavery legal requirements, and the ILO’s findings that more than 100,000 cotton pickers worked under forced labour conditions in 2019, brands need additional assurances of worker protections. Despite the ongoing global pandemic, these assurances are essential for our members.”

Patricia Jurewicz, Cotton Campaign co-founder and vice president of Responsible Sourcing Network, adds: “Any system we set up with brands to protect workers and farmers will only be effective if the Uzbek government does its part not only to pass reforms, but also to enforce them. This is critical both to eliminate forced labour and to establish ethical supply chains that brands trust.”