Uzbekistan asks global retailers to lift cotton boycott due to pandemic

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan – Uzbekistan asked global retailers and apparel brands to lift a long-lasting boycott on its key cotton crop on Thursday, April 16, citing its overhaul of forced labor practices and the virus pandemic's economic shocks.

In a letter addressed to the Cotton Campaign, an advocacy campaign whose pledge to exclude Uzbek cotton is supported by more than 300 apparel brands and retailers, Uzbekistan's labor minister Nozim Khusanov called for an end to a "global boycott on Uzbek cotton."

The Cotton Campaign's 2011 vow to eliminate Uzbek cotton from international supply chains is rooted in concerns over widespread forced and child labor that has existed in the harvest since Soviet times. 

Responding to the government, the campaign made it clear that the boycott was still in force and the government should show more progress.

Khusanov's letter cited the International Labor Organization findings from last year's harvest that determined forced labor was no longer "systematic" in the harvest, following a 40% fall in cases from 2018. 

Child labor, a grim calling card of the reign of Uzbekistan's late leader Islam Karimov, was "no longer a concern," the organization said.  

Uzbekistan has pursued major economic reforms under Karimov's successor Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who shocked observers by opening up the tightly controlled country to tourism and liberalizing the economy.    

But 1.5 million Uzbeks are currently unemployed as a result of lockdown measures and other factors related to the global coronavirus pandemic, the labor ministry said.

"Moreover, 200,000 individuals are expected to fall below the poverty line as the country undergoes its lockdown," the letter said.

In a response to the letter, the Cotton Campaign said it "welcomes the challenge...to end the Uzbek Cotton Pledge" which the campaign said it is reviewing.  

But while the campaign credited "significant steps towards ending systemic forced labor and enacting structural reforms," it said Uzbekistan had not made enough progress in creating space for civil society and independent labor unions. 

Cotton Campaign coordinator Allison Gill told Agence France-Presse that ending the boycott "depends on ending forced labor, which is up to the government, not us."

"Brands weren't exactly rushing to reenter Uzbekistan and really can't given ongoing forced labor, which even the government acknowledges occurred in 2019," Gill said in emailed remarks.

"That is why we are developing a framework to encourage responsible sourcing that would provide brands assurances." – Rappler.com