With the annual International Uzbek Cotton and Textile Fair scheduled for October 14th and 15th in Tashkent, retailers and apparel brands are taking action to prevent Uzbek cotton from entering their supply chains. Markets for Uzbek cotton sourced with forced labor continue to diminish as consumers become more aware of the egregious human rights violations that occur during the Uzbek cotton harvest.
Much of the international pressure has come from retailers including Target, Walmart, C&A, Marks & Spencer, IKEA, and H&M, which have signed RSN's Cotton Pledge, committing to not use Uzbek cotton harvested with forced labor in their products. The most recent of the multinational retailers to sign the pledge is Tesco, the second-largest retailer in the world.
"Tesco was one of the first retailers to ban the use of Uzbek cotton in the supply chain in 2007, and we are now very proud to be a signatory to the Cotton Pledge," said Giles Bolton, Responsible Sourcing Director for Tesco. "Eliminating cotton picked with forced labor is a critical step in the responsible sourcing process, and this, as well as eradicating other human rights abuses buried deep in global supply chains requires concerted and coordinated efforts."
During the Uzbek cotton harvest, over four million Uzbek citizens are forced to pick cotton under threat of penalty. Everyone from nurses to civil servants to teachers are reportedly forced to leave their hospitals and classrooms to pick cotton or pay hefty fines.
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"I have worked as a teacher for only one year, but I regretted I chose this position already a thousand times," stated an Uzbek teacher who sent a letter to the Ozodlik radio station, in reference to picking cotton.
Due to the pressure on the Uzbek government by the international community, there has been some success in reducing human rights violations. Finally, after five years of coordinated advocacy, children ages 7-15 are almost completely absent from the fields, and the International Labour Organization (ILO) was allowed to monitor the cotton harvest for the "worst forms of child labor" last year.
However, even though the youngest children are no longer in the fields, a larger number of older students and adults are working as forced laborers in their place, and retailers do not want to have any part in supporting the repressive system.
Retailers and brands have the power to decide where to source their products and are urged to sign the Cotton Pledge if they haven’t already. With a growing majority of global retailers and brands pledging not to use Uzbek cotton, the Government of Uzbekistan will be pressed to dismantle its orchestrated system of forced labor — and students, teachers, and civilians will be able to continue their normal lives.
For its part, IKEA has undertaken several of its own initiatives in an attempt to responsibly source all of its cotton (it’s up to 72 percent, as of earlier this year), with particular focus on India and Pakistan. In June, the IKEA Foundation and Save the Children announced plans to expand a program aimed at protecting children living in India’s cotton communities. IKEA said the $9.4 million expansion of the initiative, which has helped to protect more than 600,000 children, will extend its reach to keep an additional 790,000 children out of cotton fields and in classrooms. And in July, WWF and IKEA released a report highlighting the impacts of their work with the Better Cotton Initiative — the report cited significant reductions in pesticides, chemical fertilizers and water use, along with increased gross margins, for Better Cotton farmers throughout the two countries.