Crossroads Asia

Uzbekistan Seeks Lifting of Cotton Boycott

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Crossroads Asia

Uzbekistan Seeks Lifting of Cotton Boycott

Tashkent continues to push for the move, touting recent progress.

Uzbekistan Seeks Lifting of Cotton Boycott
Credit: Flickr / kimberlykv

In light of recent reports highlighting progress in eliminating child and forced labor from the Uzbek cotton industry, Uzbekistan has pushed for the lifting of the Cotton Campaign’s pledge in which more than 300 companies are committed to boycotting Uzbek cotton.

At a recent event held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., former political prisoner Azam Farmanov made the case that the boycott of Uzbek cotton should end. Farmanov served 11 years in one of Uzbekistan’s most notorious prisons, after being jailed on extortion charges that human rights activists say were manufactured in retaliation for his work defending the rights of farmers. In Washington, Farmanov sat at the same table as Uzbek Ambassador to the United States Javlon Vakhabov — both urging international companies to re-think the boycott on Uzbek cotton.

“The strong message coming from the presidential administration to every single official, employer and whoever is [involved in the cotton sector] that forced labor is not acceptable and will not be tolerated… that’s the key message,” Vakhabov said, strongly stating the Uzbek government’s position that progress has been made and will continue to be made.

The so-called boycott referenced is the Cotton Campaign’s Uzbek Cotton Pledge in which signatory companies commit to not knowingly source Uzbek cotton for the manufacturing of any of our products until the Government of Uzbekistan ends the practice of forced child and adult labor in its cotton sector.” As of writing, 313 companies, associations, and manufacturers have signed.

At the recent event in Washington, Farmanov passed around a leaflet stating “It’s time to lift the BOYCOTT of Uzbek cotton, garments and textiles” which laid out the contours of the present international discussion regarding Uzbekistan’s cotton sector.

As I covered a few weeks ago, the International Labor Organization (ILO)’s report following its third party monitoring mission in the 2018 harvest concluded that forced labor was not exacted in a “systematic or systemic fashion by the Uzbek government.” The leaflet echoed this finding, with its 10 signatories stating that “a large-scale reform of the cotton sector has begun.”

But despite positive progress in the overall reform initiative, the leaflet argues that unemployment is a serious problem — one that is difficult to solve while Uzbek cotton remains boycotted by major clothing manufacturers.

“We need foreign investment and trade to help solve the problem of unemployment and to improve the livelihoods of ordinary people,” they write. The boycott, the leaflet says, “was justified and helpful during the dictatorship of [Islam] Karimov. However, given the real changes in the governance of the country over the last three years, we consider it timely and appropriate both from a political and social perspective to life the BOYCOTT of Uzbek cotton.”

“The BOYCOTT doesn’t serve the interests of ordinary Uzbeks,” the leaflet states.

Eric Gottwald, deputy director of the International Labor Rights Forum, highlighted in his remarks that while significant progress has been made in eliminating forced labor, it does remain a problem in Uzbekistan. The ILO’s report cited an estimate of more than 170,000 people forced to participate in the cotton harvest in 2018. While that may be dramatically fewer than in the past, it’s not an insignificant number of people.

The pledge, as noted above, specifically states that the companies have agreed to not source Uzbek cotton until the Uzbek government, “ends forced labor in the cotton sector.”

“The Pledge is not targeted at farmers or regular people, but rather at ending the Uzbek government’s state run system of forced labor cotton production,” Gottwald told The Diplomat in an email. While acknowledging the progress made, Gottwald noted that the Uzbek German Forum (UGF)’s 2018 monitoring report “found lots of evidence of state (mainly, but not exclusively, regional and local government officials) involvement in ‘mobilizing’ – read: forcing – workers to pick cotton.”

As for an early lift of the pledge, Gottwald pointed out in comments to The Diplomat that “Even if the Pledge was lifted prematurely (before state sponsored forced labor is truly eradicated), brands will not rush in to source products made with Uzbek cotton. If they did, they run unacceptable reputational and even legal risks.”

Uzbek cotton was recently removed from a U.S. government list of goods produced with forced child labor, but it remains on the list for the use of forced adult labor. Similarly, Uzbekistan’s status was upgraded on the most recent Trafficking in Persons Report from Tier 3, the bottom rung, in the 2017 report to the Tier 2 Watch List, meaning the country does not meet the standards set but is making “significant progress” to do so.

But we’ve been here before: in 2015 Uzbekistan was upgraded from Tier 3 to the Watch List. At the time I dove into the politics of the list:

Uzbekistan spent five consecutive years [as of writing in 2015] on the Tier 2 Watch List, which was possible only because of special waivers from the secretary of state. Technically, a country that has been ranked on the Tier 2 Watch List for two consecutive years and would otherwise be ranked on the Watch List in the third year must be automatically downgraded. A 2008 amendment to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act allows for the secretary of state to waive the downgrade for two consecutive years. After those two additional years, the country must either be upgraded to Tier 2–meaning progress has, indeed, been made–or downgraded to Tier 3.

In 2013, after five years on the Tier 2 Watch List Uzbekistan was automatically downgraded. Moving Uzbekistan back to the Tier 2 Watch List is less an indication of improvement than an indication that the U.S. government wishes to keep the country off the worst offender lists and the related funding restrictions required by law.

Uzbekistan was returned to Tier 3 in 2016. In this way, the rankings, upgrades, and downgrades lose some meaning.

Of significance this time around is the tone of conversations being held publicly about the Uzbek cotton sector. The various participants in this debate are sitting at the same table. While they may not agree on all the details (there was some dispute at the Washington event about the matter of a quota system), the conversation is being had: How can forced labor be eradicated from Uzbekistan?

On that measure, Ambassador Vakhabov highlighted privatization, mechanization, and foreign investment as key aspects of the Uzbek government’s efforts going forward. These efforts — to get the government out of the sector, modernize the industry, and attract foreign investment — fit into the government’s economy focused reform agenda.

Gottwald pointed to needed reforms in how the state manages the cotton harvest, currently in a top-down, centrally managed fashion. “The continued imposition of production quotas from Tashkent makes regional and local officials turn to forced labor, particularly during the late stages of the cotton harvest when the supply of voluntary, paid laborers declines,” he said.

Vakhabov, in his remarks, commented that the Uzbek government is focusing its efforts in modifying its agricultural policies in ways “that make the use of forced labor economically unviable and unnecessary.”

Gottwald also noted that fostering civil society participation and ensuring the unimpeded access of monitors and journalists to the harvest are critical. For his part, Vakhabov invited journalists to observe the next harvest.

According to Gottwald, the Cotton Campaign is planning to release a “roadmap” of suggested reforms soon. The roadmap was requested by the Uzbek government.