Crossroads Asia | Central Asia

Beyond the Pledge: Is It Time to Lift the Boycott of Uzbek Cotton?

Activists stress that there is a pathway beyond the pledge, but it’s a long road to full reform of the Uzbek cotton sector.

Catherine Putz
Beyond the Pledge: Is It Time to Lift the Boycott of Uzbek Cotton?

In this photo taken on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018, Uzbek workers pick parched cotton on the field in Tashkent region in Uzbekistan.

Credit: AP Photo/Timur Karpov

On April 16, in a letter addressed to key activists in the Cotton Campaign, Uzbek Minister of Employment and Labor Relations Nozim Khusanov urged an end to the Uzbek Cotton Pledge, a campaign to boycott Uzbek cotton signed by more than 300 companies since its initiation in 2007. The pledge commits the signatories to not knowingly source Uzbek cotton “until the Government of Uzbekistan ends the practice of forced labor in its cotton sector.”

In response to the letter, the Cotton Campaign released a statement welcoming the minister’s letter; the statement referred to the letter as a “challenge.”

In the statement, Cotton Campaign co-founder and former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights Bennett Freeman said, “The issue is not whether to end the pledge but when and how to do so, and above all how ending the pledge can become a catalyst for responsible sourcing and investment that supports labor and human rights in a reforming Uzbekistan.”

In his letter, Khusanov highlighted Uzbekistan’s progress on combating forced labor. He pointed to the government working with the Cotton Campaign’s “Roadmap of Reforms” that the organization released last summer and to recent legal acts codifying commitments to improve social welfare and protect human rights. It’s worth noting also that in early March, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev abolished state regulation of cotton production and sales, seen as a critical step in reforming the country’s cotton sector.

In conversation with The Diplomat, Freeman and Allison Gill, both from the Cotton Campaign, discussed the evolution of the relationship between the campaign and the Uzbek government.

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In the last year or two, Gill told The Diplomat, it has become easier for the two sides to talk to each other. Rather than staking out their opposed positions, there’s “a real exchange of views that feels like it’s moving toward outcomes.”

“We have really found a way to really listen to each other and talk to each other and actually be able to contribute constructively,” she said.

Given that these discussions have been ongoing, the timing of the Uzbek minister’s letter is curious. Khusanov highlights the unique and difficult circumstances Uzbekistan now finds itself in.

“Uzbekistan is now facing an unprecedented dual threat for public health and economy following the spread of the coronavirus pandemic,” Khusanov writes in the letter. He goes on to state that 1.5 million Uzbeks are unemployed and with the lockdowns currently in place in the country, “150,000 citizens have already lost their jobs and more than 140,000 migrant workers have returned home without a source of income. More than 200,000 Uzbeks have now fallen below the poverty line.”

Ending the boycott, Khusanov states, “would be pivotal.” 

The Uzbek textile sector is a major employer and Khusanov highlights that Uzbek textile producers “have already mobilized in a short period to achieve a tenfold increase in the production of personal protective equipment (PPE) for the domestic market.” Uzbek-made PPE, he argues, could help fill in global shortages while also putting Uzbeks back to work. 

In their statement, the Cotton Campaign noted that the coronavirus pandemic has been devastatingly disruptive for the apparel industry. 

“Some of these brands’ own survival is in question, let alone where in the world they are going to be sourcing,” Freeman commented. And with Uzbekistan, there’s a dual challenge he said, COVID-19 notwithstanding. Overcoming the legacy of forced labor is the first part of the challenge. Many brands in Europe and North America are not eager yet to jump into Uzbekistan, where, “despite the significant progress there were still at least 100,000 people forced into labor in the cotton fields this past autumn,” Freeman said. And the second aspect of the challenge is that Uzbekistan still has to catch up on two decades’ worth of progress with regard to responsible sourcing and business practices as well as expectations on labor and human rights.

While the coronavirus pandemic makes the Uzbek government’s arguments more acute, this is not the first time Uzbekistan has floated the idea of dropping the boycott. In April 2019, at an event hosted by the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., former political prisoner Azam Farmanov made the case that the boycott of Uzbek cotton should end.

After the Islam Karimov era came to an end in 2016, President Mirziyoyev has engaged in a sweeping reform program first aimed at two main goals: improving regional cooperation and improving Uzbekistan’s economy.

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Cotton remains a mainstay in the Uzbek economic mix, but over the years its position in Uzbek exports has fallen. As of 2017, textiles — including raw cotton, yarn, fabrics, and more — accounted for 15 percent of Uzbek exports; in 2007, the year the Uzbek Cotton Pledge was launched, Uzbek textiles accounted for 27 percent of the country’s exports. Moving further back, in 2001 textiles represented 50 percent of Uzbek exports. It’s with that past in mind, and a hope to return to such prominence in the global supply of cotton, that Tashkent has pushed to end the boycott impeding, in its view, the expansion of its exports.

The International Labor Organization (ILO)’s report on the 2019 cotton harvest in Uzbekistan underscored continued progress in eliminating forced labor. Other civil society activists and monitors have echoed messages of notable progress. For example, the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights (formerly the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, UGF) noted in a March 27 statement that “measures taken so far have led to significant tangible improvements.” It’s important to note that UGF and others have nevertheless pointed out areas for further improvement, including with regard to the mobilization of public employees for the harvest, issues related to wages, and concerns with the new cotton cluster system.

But while forced labor is no longer as prevalent as it once was, the Cotton Campaign notes in their statement that 100,000 people were forced to work in the most recent harvest. That reality, combined with a lack of progress in the realm of civil society freedoms — for example difficulties for NGOs trying to register and workers attempting to organize — impedes the lifting of the pledge. 

If the Uzbek government is eager to be open for business, Cotton Campaign’s Gill asked, “then why won’t they register labor rights NGOs that are going to help provide the transparency that brands want?” While there have been some new NGOs registered by the Uzbek government in the last few years, there exist no independent trade unions in Uzbekistan. “There has to be space for workers to organize and use grievance mechanisms without fear of retribution so those organizations can develop over time.”

As the Uzbek government looks for avenues to cushion the economic impact of the coronavirus, not to mention expand its economic activity, and as activists seek to protect workers and their rights, the good news is this remains an active conversation built on a cooperative relationship between activists and the Uzbek government. 

“We are envisioning and actually trying to design a pathway beyond the pledge; the pledge is not the end in itself,” Freeman stressed. “The end is tangible, practical encouragement and ultimate facilitation of responsible sourcing and investment that respects labor and human rights. That’s the pot at the end of the rainbow.”