This post originally appeared as a Letter to the Editor of The New York Times on January 2, 2014:
“In Uzbekistan, the Practice of Forced Labor Lives On During the Cotton Harvest” (news article, Dec. 18) exposes the Uzbek government’s systematic use of forced labor to grow and harvest cotton. The recent successful efforts by the Cotton Campaign to press the Uzbek government to curtail the use of young children in the forced-labor scheme should be celebrated. Yet it is alarming to read that again this year, the government continued to brazenly force Uzbek farming families to grow cotton, force older children and adults to pick the cotton, punish anyone who refused to follow orders and detain human rights defenders and journalists attempting to report the crimes to the outside world.
Unfortunately, with Uzbekistan among the world’s largest producers of cotton, we can expect that store shelves in the United States and Europe will continue to be stocked with apparel that contains cotton from forced labor until the Obama administration and governments around the world take serious steps to hold accountable Uzbek government officials and companies like Daewoo International that profit from the government’s forced-labor scheme.
Washington, Dec. 19, 2013
The writer is director of policy and legal programs for the International Labor Rights Forum.
This week, in the article (original / English translation) “Why was a container with 22 tons of Uzbek yarn detained in the United States,” the Uzbek state media outlet 12Uz complained that the U.S. Customs Service prevented a shipment of yarn produced in Uzbekistan by the South Korean company Indorama from entering the port of Los Angeles. While the article makes wildly inaccurate allegations about the Cotton Campaign, it fails to mention the two words that would answer its own question: forced labor.
In 2013, the Uzbek government again systematically forced children and adults to pick cotton and farmers to produce state-established quotas of cotton in one of the largest state-sponsored systems of forced labor in the world. Authorities penalized those who refused to participate in cotton production, and penalties included fines, expulsion from school, job loss, denial of public benefits, and even physical violence.
The Uz12 article ignores two key related points: First, forced labor is illegal under Uzbek law; second, importing goods made with forced labor is illegal under U.S. law. The U.S. Tariff Act of 1930 requires the U.S. Customs Service to deny entry to goods that arrive at U.S. ports that contain materials made with forced labor. This trade regulation rewards countries that take their obligation to protect human rights seriously and supports companies that respect human rights throughout their operations and supply chains.
Therefore, the U.S. Customs Service is to be commended for holding shipments of products with forced-labor produced cotton from Uzbekistan, and Indorama Kokand Textiles should change practice from ignoring to fulfilling its human rights due diligence responsibilities.
Already, there is broad acknowledgement of the problems of forced labor in the production of cotton in Uzbekistan and distribution of the tainted product to retailers worldwide, following its processing into apparel and other consumer items in China, Bangladesh and elsewhere. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) National Contact Point of France determined in a case against European traders dealing in Uzbek cotton that trading in goods produced from forced child labor constitutes a flagrant violation of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. Nearly 140 companies from around the world have pledged not to source cotton from Uzbekistan due to continued forced labor of children and adults. Nike, H&M, Ikea and other companies pushed Daewoo International out of their supply chains in protest against the South Korean company’s support for the forced labor system, as the largest cotton manufacturer in Uzbekistan. Indorama should take note, stop buying Uzbek cotton until there is no forced labor in its production, and establish independent human rights monitoring of its operations and supply chain.
The Uzbek government should also take a lesson from the seizure of Indorama’s shipment and understand that continued refusal to end forced labor impedes trade and investment. Importantly, the Uzbek government began working with the International Labour Organization (ILO), with a monitoring exercise during the 2013 cotton harvest. As previously reported, that exercise was unfortunately limited only to child labor, and Uzbek authorities took extensive measures to conceal forced labor, including returning children to school in anticipation of inspections and instructing people to lie to the monitors. The 12Uz article notes that the ILO monitoring mission found there was no systematic recourse to child labor in the 2014 harvest, but the article ignores the key ILO findings that there was child labor, that those instances were related to the state-order system of cotton production, and that effective implementation of the convention prohibiting forced labor remains a concern. The question now is whether the Uzbek government will commit to reform and deepen its work with the ILO to apply all fundamental labor conventions.
Finally, regarding our campaign, as a coalition of human rights NGOs, labor unions, socially responsible investors, and business associations, our goal remains ending forced labor in cotton production. Our coalition participants have no ties to the cotton industry. To state otherwise is false and distracting from the serious human rights situation in Uzbekistan. Together, we the Cotton Campaign urge the government of Uzbekistan to eliminate forced labor in its cotton sector by taking the following steps: