Forced labour

Combating forced and child labour in Uzbekistan
Investor, company and NGO coalition to address forced child labour
Cotton Campaign
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The Cotton Campaign is a network of brands, retail associations, investors, and civil society working collaboratively to halt the use of forced child labour in Uzbek cotton production. Founded in 2008, the Network works with both US and European companies to combat forced child labour in their supply chains.

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Dilemma: Accusations of forced child labour cause serious concern among investors

An estimated 2 million children between the ages of 11 and 17 harvest cotton in Uzbekistan under conditions described as forced labour. Unlike cases in many other countries where children work on family farms, the Uzbek case is particularly severe in terms of scale, organisation and government complicity. Each year, for example, the government closes schools, hospitals and offices for three months in order to boost the workforce available for the annual cotton harvest with student, teachers and government employees.

The Cotton Campaign says some school administrators have used physical abuse and public humiliation to ensure that the government-imposed quota of 30-60 kilograms of cotton is picked per child per day, depending on their age. The Cotton Campaign also notes that these children receive little or no pay for their work, and are often only provided with food. The government maintains a cotton monopoly, purchasing cotton at low prices from ‘shirkats’ (state-run farming cooperatives) or nominally independent farms and selling it on commodity exchanges at full price.

In 2005, several NGOs (including the Environmental Justice Foundation and the International Crisis Group), Uzbek advocacy groups as well as the BBC began to raise awareness about the issue and mounted a strong campaign targeting companies to remove Uzbek cotton from their supply chains. The campaign successfully prompted some companies to take action and led to broader industry engagement on the issue. This NGO coalition also began to work with investors and companies in what would later become known as the Responsible Cotton Network, and subsequently the Cotton Campaign. As a result, many clothing companies came under strong pressure to exclude Uzbek cotton from their supply chains, in order to ensure they were not complicit in the violation of these children's rights.

Nonetheless, when companies were challenged directly over the issue, many insisted that traceability within the chain was too complex and they could not determine whether or not Uzbek cotton was used in their product lines. In particular, they noted the challenge posed by the fact that Uzbek cotton is sold on commodity exchanges and then traded and mixed with cotton from other countries.

Good practice: Creation of a multi-stakeholder investor, NGO and company network

Founded in May 2008, the Cotton Campaign includes a wide range of players including socially-responsible investment companies such as Calvert and Boston Common Asset Management, a range of major brands and retailers, and sector organisations including the National Retail Federation of the US and the National Retail Council of Canada. The Cotton Campaign provides momentum by convening meetings and webinars, collating information, and providing draft language for letters and statements. Nevertheless, while the campaign network provides cohesion to the group's efforts, the individual stakeholders and companies have served as the drivers of change.

The Cotton Campaign has sought to influence policymakers in Uzbekistan through diplomatic channels in order to combat forced child labour. Four trade associations have written letters to the US Department of State, the Department of Labour, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and to President Karimov himself. Despite assurances from the deputy foreign minister of Uzbekistan, there has been no action from the government. Whilst Uzbekistan has ratified ILO Convention 138 on the Minimum Age of Work and Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labour, serious violations are reportedly continuing.

Results: Companies develop policies banning Uzbek cotton

One of the positive outcomes of the campaign is that companies have made significant progress in tracing cotton in the supply chain. Some companies are developing a chain of custody to trace the cotton and yarn used in their manufacturing through the supply chain. Suppliers are being asked to show country of origin certificates.

A wide range of companies have also publicly announced that they will not knowingly source cotton from Uzbekistan, including:

  • American Eagle Outfitters
  • Bed, Bath and Beyond
  • C&A
  • Gap
  • JCPenney
  • Jones Group
  • Kohl's
  • Krenholm (Estonia)
  • Levi Strauss & Co.
  • Limited Brands
  • L.L.Bean
  • Macy's
  • Marimekko
  • Marks & Spencer
  • Nike
  • Nordstrom
  • The North Face
  • Patagonia
  • Phillips van Heusen
  • Target
  • Tesco
  • Timberland
  • TJX Companies
  • The Walt Disney Company
  • Vanity Fair
  • Wal-Mart Stores

Companies have worked to address complexities within their supply chain through a variety of measures. For example, some have communicated with their suppliers through statements on their intranet or letters, notifying them of a company policy or commitment to ban the sourcing of Uzbek cotton. Several of these companies have pursued traceability mechanisms, which are currently at different phases of implementation. The (FLA), a multi-stakeholder initiative, has worked with a few of its members to take two approaches to address the complexity of the supply chain:

  • To follow the paper trail from contracted cut and sew vendors down to the cotton fleece level
  • To analyse how organic cotton is currently being traced and see if this same approach can be applied to conventional cotton

Several factors have made the Cotton Campaign successful. According to Sean Ansett, one of its coordinators, “we are dealing with a specific issue, which is so egregious that stakeholders are in agreement about the need to take action. What truly sets this initiative apart from other is that the network is flexible, nimble and can quickly react to changes related to the issue. The network is a game changer in many ways including driving responsibility down the chain.” In addition, multi-stakeholder initiatives, such as the Ethical Trading Initiative, Social Accountability International and the Fair Labour Association have become involved. The involvement of some non-traditional actors like the International Organisation of Employers and trade associations has also provided additional momentum.

According to Boston Common Asset Management, “we have had progress with companies on the ground. We cannot name the Uzbek human rights organisations we are working with for fear of reprisals, but they have told us that it is clear that global brands are putting pressure on the Uzbek government.”

However, Uzbek cotton – some of it produced by child labour – still appears on the annual Tashkent Cotton Fair, which continues to have a good turnout of buyers despite efforts by retailers and brands to mobilise awareness among suppliers. The biggest buyers are from China, Turkey, Vietnam and Bangladesh.32 This indicates that traders have not shown a commitment to changing their business practices. The Cotton Campaign is focusing efforts on reaching Asian companies and other sectors, including cotton used for medical uses and for cosmetic purposes.