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Fashion brands step to unwind forced labor system in Uzbekistan

Cotton is a core raw material in textile production and cotton is the second largest industry in the world. But the industry holds many untold stories itself

Uzbekistan produces 5% of total world cotton and cotton is an emergency cash crop a year for the Uzbek government. Cotton is a vital $1 billion-a-year cash crop for the Uzbek government. Uzbekistan has a population of 32 million and is the seventh-largest producer of raw cotton.

Over the years, farmers have had to buy seeds and fertilizers from a state-run company, meet state production quotas, and sell their cotton to the state at an artificially low cost of cotton. But with the new reform-minded President in late 2016, there are signs that the practice is much less regularized today, and is slowly falling behind.

The number of Uzbeks forced to work on the land a decade ago has dropped from a million to less than half the potential. Every year, thousands of Uzbeks choose to cotton against their wishes or risk fines or damage to jobs and facilities.

Figure: Forced labor system is much less regularized today in Uzbekistan for the brands’ initiative against it.

As part of the central plan of the Soviet period, the program mainly detained public sector workers, including doctors, teachers, nurses, bankers and police officers, for raising cotton from September to November.

A total of two and a half million people in the field including forced labor remain as one of the largest recruitment programs anywhere in the world. The International Labor Organization estimates that 170,000 adults were forced to pick cotton in 2018 and the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, a non-profit organization that also monitors the crop, puts the 2018 estimate at 400,000 and possibly even more. The Uzbek government does not dispute the ILO image.

As a result, players including Levi Strauss & Co., Marks & Spencer Group PLC, Nike Inc. Kering SA’s Gucci and Corrosion-Owner Industria de Diseño Textil SA have acquired a war against forced labor in a vacant consumer supply chain. Much of the credit goes to Western fashion companies that blacklisted Uzbek cotton and adjusted their supply chains to buy fiber from elsewhere.

Corporate pressure began to build on May 27, when more than four names in the apparel business, including Walmart Inc., Burberry Group Plc, The Gap Inc. and The Walt Disney Co., joined the exclusion known as ‘Uzbek Cotton.’

Extra pressure was put on hold by the Cotton Campaign, an advocacy group of trade, labor and human rights organizations. More than 300 companies were deliberately not committed to using Uzbek cotton.

There was a dramatic change from a decade ago when each fall in the field of labor was one million. “The boycott took place because major markets like the US, Europe and Canada were closed to Uzbek cotton exports,” said Nat Herman, Senior Vice President of the American Clothing and Footwear Company’s supply chain, which represented more than a thousand brands and was the first party to boycott.

At first brand like Levi was facing the challenges that jeans which made by Bangladeshi clothing industry is using Uzbek cotton or not. So, they began to trace down cotton from the factory to the fabric supplier, and from there to yarn spinners and the cotton brokers who purchase raw cotton from different sources.

The Asian country used to be the biggest importer of Uzbek cotton, buying 63% of its annual supply from Uzbekistan in 2006. Bangladesh’s imports of Uzbek cotton fell to 21% in 2014, and have tumbled further since then. Brands like H&M stopped suppliers to buy cotton from Uzbekistan and aims to get all of its cotton by BCI (Better Cotton Initiative is a non-profit organization that promotes better standards in cotton farming and practices across 21 countries) by 2020.

As a result, the export of Uzbek cotton reduced from 2.5 million bales to 700,000 bales in the last decade where 50% export was on raw cotton and now it’s less than 1%.

Patricia Jurewicz, Founder And Vice President of Responsible Sourcing Network said, “It’s a matter of strong love. For several years they were not listening to us or trying to improve matters, but the government came to the table once we used the influence of brands and retailers.”

In October, a member of the Cotton Campaign, a longtime critic of the Uzbek government, sat down with Washington Minister for Investment and Foreign Trade Sardar Umurzakov in Washington, DC. “I understand that we need to be contacted directly,” Umurzakov said during an interview from the US side at his Tashkent office. “Without the complete elimination of forced labor, we would not be able to attract foreign investment.”

“The first step was the problem that we had to admit,” said Irkin Mukhtinov, the First Deputy Minister of labor in an interview in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. “Our hands may not have reached the bottom of the issue, but we are trying.”

In recent months, the Uzbek government has responded to the demands of the brand by raising the wages for voluntary cotton pickers, increasing the mechanization of crops and tabled a bill, criminalizing forced labor for the first time. In recent years, the government has also stopped convincing schoolchildren to pick cotton – one of the major controversies for Western brands – and in March 2019, the US Labor Office removed Uzbek cotton from the list of child labor products.

The Uzbek government hopes to reduce forced labor by increasing mechanization crops in four provinces of the 13 countries by 10% to 96% in the next three years. According to Foreign Trade Minister Umurzakov, instead of exporting cotton, it plans to use this fiber domestically to produce textile and clothing worth $7 billion by 2025.

Uzbek President Shawkat Mirziev instructed the governors of all 13 provinces to do more to ensure that the reforms were followed by local authorities. According to Umurzakov, who attended the meeting, the President said, “Instead of forcing labor, I prefer not to eat cotton. Let it be in the field.”

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