“Syria, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan may become increasingly important apparel sourcing countries in coming years once ongoing issues around political and human rights have been resolved,” reported Just Style this week. Amidst such speculation, companies should accelerate efforts to ensure that cotton from Uzbekistan does not enter their supply chain while the state-sponsored forced labor system continues.
The Just Style article notes a natural competitive advantage that Uzbekistan and other cotton-producing countries have to deliver cotton products despite floods or droughts. However, any consideration of business with Uzbek cotton should carefully consider remarks of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, delivered along with the release of the annual Trafficking in Persons report,
“Modern slavery – be it bonded labor, involuntary servitude, or sexual slavery – is a crime and cannot be tolerated in any culture, community, or country … [It] is an affront to our values and our commitment to human rights.”
According to reports from Uzbek civil-society organizations, the Uzbek government forced labor system of cotton production continued unabated in 2011, and recently announced quotas for 2012 are expected to demand even more from the children and adults forced to work the cotton fields. Far from resolving the issue, the Uzbek government consistently denies the existence of forced labor and silences, sometimes violently, citizen monitors. In 2011, Uzbek authorities arbitrarily detained rights activists - Elena Urlaeva, Gulshan Karaeva, and Nodir Akhatov - while they were photographing and interviewing Uzbek school children forced to pick cotton, fired the Fergana provincial governor after he attempted to establish and implement systematic monitoring of the harvest, and fired and threatened criminal prosecution against schoolteacher Ziyadullo Rizzakov after he protested the mobilization of his students to pick cotton.
Over 60 major apparel companies have publicly signed a pledge calling for the end of forced labor in the Uzbek cotton sector. All companies in the apparel industry should take note that business with Uzbek cotton associates the brand with modern slavery and recognize their unique opportunity to support human rights with purchasing practices. By signing the pledge and are ensuring that Uzbek cotton is not used in their supply chain, companies in all parts of the apparel industry send a message to the Uzbek government that the future of cotton-based industries depends on the end of forced labor in the Uzbek cotton sector.