US$1 Trillion Milestone Reached in Support of the Cotton Pledge Against Forced Labor. Will the Government of Uzbekistan Finally Listen to Industry’s Demands?

As cotton merchants head to Uzbekistan for its annual cotton fair which starts on Wednesday, Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN) in the our press release today announced the latest numbers regarding corporate support of the Company Pledge Against Forced Child and Adult Labor in Uzbek Cotton. 136 international brands and companies with a combined estimated Market Cap of US$1.024 trillion* have now signed the pledge declaring their refusal to source cotton from the country until the forced labor of children and adults in the cotton fields ceases.

IKEA, lululemon athletica, and Marks & Spencer are the latest companies to add to the growing coalition of apparel companies taking a stand against oppression and forced labor in the Uzbek cotton industry. There can not be a stronger message to the Government of Uzbekistan (GOU) than having a trillion-dollars worth of the apparel industry stating they do not want any form of slave labor from entering the global market and taking actions to block it.

So, are all of the combined actions of the Cotton Coalition having any impact? In some ways yes, in some ways no. For example, the youngest children (aged 7 - 11) were not mobilized in mass quantities during the 2012 harvest. However, as a result, greater numbers of older students and adults were mobilized. This year is especially significant because for the first time the GOU is allowing the International Labor Organization (ILO) to conduct an inspection mission during the harvest (something the Cotton Coalition has been asking for since 2008). Although we all welcome the return of the ILO’s presence in Uzbekistan after being snubbed for many years, there is skepticism that the mission will produce accurate results. ILO representatives will be accompanied by Uzbek officials, making it difficult for citizens to speak openly with ILO monitors.

The Uzbek government’s continuation of forced labor this year raises further doubts about their intentions. In March and April, authorities beat farmers for planting onions instead of cotton( read more) and forced adults and children to prepare the cotton fields (read more). In August and September, school administrators forced parents to sign consent forms for their children to pick cotton as a precondition for school registration (read more). Since the start of the harvest around September 6, authorities have coercively mobilized teenagers, university students, teachers, doctors, and other public-sector workers to pick cotton or pay fines (read more ). On September 16, 200,000 people were sent to the cotton fields from Tashkent alone (read more). In some regions, one-fifth of all public-sector workers are picking cotton. Tax officials have delivered ultimatums to business owners: send their employees and contribute financially, or face extraordinary tax inspections (read more). Tragically, the death of 6-year old Amirbek Rachmatow on September 15th was the fifth fatality in the first month of the harvest (read more).

The message being sent by industry is that the GOU must meet its commitments to international labor standards in order to participate in global markets. If it doesn’t, RSN is committed to increasingly minimizing options for where the Uzbek government can sell its cotton.

The full pledge text and list of signatories is available at: /the-cotton-pledge.

Up-to-date 2013 Uzbek cotton harvest information distributed by the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights.

* The estimated Market Capitalization was derived on October 10-13, 2013. The Market Cap for privately held companies was calculated using an average P/S ratio of the public companies that signed the pledge and revenue information available in the public domain.