Last updated: December 2015
Ending forced labour in Uzbekistan
It has been almost 10 years since the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) exposed the use of forced and child labour for picking cotton under state-controlled cotton production in Uzbekistan. (4)
Although in response to international pressure children under 15 were largely eliminated from the 2012 and 2013 harvests, the issue is far from resolved, with the Government of Uzbekistan reportedly now forcing larger numbers of older children and adults into the cotton fields at harvest time. Although mechanical options exist, 90% of the Uzbek cotton harvest is picked by hand due to lack of agricultural machinery. (1)
Uzbekistan exports 75% of its cotton crop – China is its biggest customer, followed by Bangladesh. And so the cotton enters the global supply chain, with some of it inevitably ending up in our clothes here in the UK. (3)
So what can be done?
The Cotton Campaign* say the companies buying and trading Uzbek cotton help to prop up the regime (reportedly, Cargill Cotton and ICT Cotton of the UK are big players), along with the banks, such as Citibank and ABN-AMRO who provide financial support to importers of Uzbek cotton. (2)
But clothing companies have a role too. Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN) (a project of As You Sow) asks them to do their bit by signing their ‘Cotton Pledge’ and saying they will avoid using Uzbek cotton in their products. Over 130 companies have signed, but RSN says this is only the very first step. It’s step one of six in fact, with other steps involving communicating the policy effectively with suppliers, removing the biggest Uzbek cotton traders from their supplier lists and checking compliance with the policy. The final one, step six, is to release documentation of all the prior steps the company has taken.
We found that many companies have made no mention of Uzbek cotton in their sustainability reports since their initial sign-up to the Cotton Pledge a few years ago. As a result it’s unclear whether or not all signatories to the pledge are actively monitoring their supply chains for Uzbek cotton. Mindful of this potential gap between policy and action, RSN has just published a report which rates companies on actions taken thus far and identifies further steps that can be taken to remove Uzbek cotton from the supply chain. Companies were given a maximum score of 100, based on a survey (to which only 61% of companies replied) which asked questions about Policy, Public Disclosure, Engagement, and Implementation & Auditing. (3)
“Due to the opaque nature of value chains, it is extremely difficult for consumers to know if the cotton in their clothing did or did not contribute to human rights abuses. For apparel companies to offer assurance to consumers that no slave-picked cotton is in their products, an audit and certification of the yarn spinners and textile mills is needed.
Signing a pledge or having a policy against cotton picked with forced labour in Uzbekistan is not enough,” said Patricia Jurewicz, Director of Responsible Sourcing Network. “Our recent research for ‘Cotton Sourcing Snapshot’ reveals 80% of the companies surveyed do not audit the yarn spinners and textile mills in their value chains, which exposes them to having tainted cotton in their products. It makes sense to establish this effort in the middle of the value chain, closest to where the cotton purchasing decisions are made.”
Download the RSN Cotton Sourcing Snapshot (opens in new window)
3 Cotton Sourcing Snapshot, Responsible Sourcing Network.
4 Supermarkets product guide, Ethical Consumer magazine, March/April 2013 Due to the opaque nature of value chains, it is extremely difficult for consumers to know if the cotton in their clothing did or did not contribute to human rights abuses.
*The Cotton Campaign is a global coalition of labour, human rights, investor and business organisations working to put a stop to the use of forced labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields.