It’s Not Time to End the Uzbek Cotton Boycott Yet
Companies should not buy Uzbekistan’s cotton until labor protections and responsible sourcing are guaranteed.
In their March 28 Foreign Policy article “The Boycott on Uzbek Cotton Needs to End,” Esfandyar Batmanghelidj and Oybek Shaykhov argued that the international boycott of Uzbek cotton helped create real progress on the issue of forced labor in the industry but that it must now come to an end in order to further modernize and privatize the wider economy. We argue that ending the boycott must be matched with more ironclad commitments for responsible sourcing and investment that respect labor and human rights in the country.
Over 300 North American and European companies, including companies we represent through the American Apparel & Footwear Association and the U.S. Fashion Industry Association, have supported a pledge not to knowingly source cotton from Uzbekistan until forced labor practices have been eliminated. The boycott is spearheaded by the Cotton Campaign, a multistakeholder coalition that also includes international labor and human rights advocates, trade unions, and responsible investors who are all working toward ending forced labor in the Uzbek cotton industry. Now, as Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev is beginning to roll out reforms, leaders and activists are determining how to hold him accountable and permanently end forced labor in the Uzbek cotton industry.
At its peak, more than 1 million people were forcibly mobilized each year to pick cotton in Uzbekistan, a practice that was directed and regulated by the government, which implemented strict production quotas that help to incentivize forced labor. The government’s unwillingness to acknowledge and address this reality, coupled with the demand for Uzbek cotton on the global market, made it clear to activists and brands alike that a boycott was a necessary and potentially effective tool to raise awareness and force reform.
Since Mirziyoyev began rolling out reforms in late 2017, significant progress has been made toward ending systemic forced labor and advancing structural reforms in cotton production. But two major challenges remain.
First, reforms must fully complete the process of eliminating the deep legacy of forced labor, which began in the early Stalinist period. As Batmanghelidj and Shaykhov note, despite the reforms, the International Labour Organization estimates that at least 102,000 people were still forced to pick cotton in the late 2019 harvest. This high number, though substantially reduced from the number just several years ago, reflects the scale of the task of dismantling such an entrenched system of command-and-control production and replacing it with voluntary labor and private farmers.
Although this reduction in forced labor does represent real progress, it persists at an unacceptable level for global brands that have zero tolerance for forced labor in their supply chains. The end of the cotton production quotas and enforcement of their delivery, announced by the government in March, has the potential to accelerate the elimination of forced labor by removing their primary structural driver, as long as equivalent progress is made in developing fair recruitment systems to ensure a voluntary labor supply.
Second, Uzbekistan must catch up with the last two decades of international standards and expectations that compel global apparel brands to demonstrate responsible sourcing from fields to factories. Even as reform moves forward, Uzbekistan still lags behind several internationally accepted best practices and must work with brands committed to meeting these requirements, including zero tolerance for forced labor.
Apparel brands want to source in countries with basic civic freedoms—freedom of association, assembly, and expression—and space for civil society voices and advocates that can hold both governments and private sector actors accountable. The Uzbek government must remove impediments to the registration of independent labor and human rights nongovernmental organizations and bring its NGO code in line with its obligation to protect the rights of association, expression, and assembly. Movement on this front will reinforce the transparency and accountability that will boost efforts to eliminate forced labor and advance structural reforms that protect human rights at the same time.
Batmanghelidj and Shaykhov write that “a new, cooperative framework to protect labor rights in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry” is necessary. Such an approach is crucial, and that is why the Cotton Campaign, in consultation with its partners, is developing such a framework for responsible sourcing agreements.
Responsible sourcing agreements would ensure adherence to international labor rights standards. Agreements would require independent monitoring by local civil society; reporting by suppliers on their due diligence efforts to prevent and mitigate any remaining forced labor; providing grievance and remedy mechanisms to address abuses affecting workers and farmers; and tracking responsibly harvested cotton through brands’ supply chains. These agreements would be enforced through the purchasing power of participating brands, which would commit to curtailing orders from suppliers that violate agreement terms and fail to take remedial actions.
The establishment and implementation of such agreements must in turn be complemented by transparent and accountable commitments and assurances by the Uzbek government at the national, regional, and local levels to protect the rights of workers and to bring a definitive end to forced labor. If such commitments and assurances can be made and implemented, brands would gain the confidence to source cotton products from Uzbekistan responsibly.
Moving forward along these lines will encourage and facilitate responsible sourcing of Uzbek cotton and investment in its apparel production industry. Only when apparel brands see progress within this framework—and concurrently by the Uzbek government toward eliminating forced labor altogether—can the international boycott of Uzbek cotton come to an end.
The brands and activists that spearheaded the boycott could then turn their attention to an even wider commitment to responsible sourcing and investment that could have an impact beyond the cotton sector—contributing to the economic and social development of a modern, reforming Uzbekistan. But this positive outcome can only be achieved while guaranteeing the protections of workers and farmers to ensure that Uzbekistan’s growth is safe, responsible, and sustainable.
Julia K. Hughes is the president of the United States Fashion Industry Association.