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October 16, 2014
Is Child Labor in Uzbekistan Cotton Fields Decreasing?
    by Robert Kropp

As You Sow's Responsible Sourcing Network reports that Tesco, the world's second largest retailer, has signed the Cotton Pledge and will avoid the use of cotton sourced from Uzbekistan until child labor is eliminated.

Uzbekistan is one of the largest cotton exporting countries in the world, but its traditional means of bringing in the annual cotton harvest has been to empty its schools and force children into laboring in the cotton fields. Over the years, efforts have been made to call the nation to account for this practice, and in part because of investor pressure on the corporate management of supply chains by apparel companies, Uzbekistan ratified International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions relating to forced child labor and minimum age in 2008.

Human rights defenders and independent journalists observed the 2009 cotton harvest in Uzbekistan; but a report by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) found that the use of forced child labor in Uzbekistan was undiminished in 2009, and up to two million Uzbek children are estimated to have been forced into labor for the cotton harvest.

Even before 2009, the Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN), a project of As You Sow, has engaged with apparel companies on the issue of sourcing cotton from Uzbekistan, and some progress has reportedly been made. In a report published earlier this year, RSN found that the forcing into labor of children under the age of 15 had ended. “Unfortunately,” the report continued, Uzbekistan “is now sending even larger numbers of older children and adults to labor in the cotton fields.”

A report issued last week by the US Department of Labor came to a somewhat different conclusion about the use of child labor in the Uzbek cotton harvest, noting “that despite the presence of ILO observers, the Uzbek government mobilized children to pick cotton to meet government-mandated quotas during the 2013 cotton harvest,” according to the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Cotton Campaign.

“These findings reinforce the investment community’s serious concern about state-sponsored forced labor in Uzbekistan,” said Bennett Freeman, Senior Vice President for Calvert Investments. “The report presents a call to action to governments, companies and investors to use their leverage to urge the government of Uzbekistan to end the forced labor system of cotton production.”

RSN's strategy of engaging with companies sourcing cotton from Uzbekistan was reflected in its ranking of 49 companies, the vast majority of which failed to score even half the points possible in the report's methodology. One way of improving corporate performance on the issue is by becoming a signatory to the Cotton Pledge. Signatories to the Pledge agree “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.”

“Retailers and brands have the power to decide where to source their products,” RSN stated recently. “We urge them to sign the Cotton Pledge if they haven’t yet.” The occasion for the statement was the signing of the Pledge by the UK-based 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.”

Uzbekistan's annual International Cotton and Textile Fair was held this week.


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