LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Cotton traders head to the Uzbek capital Tashkent for their annual cotton fair on Wednesday, as a growing number of international companies have declared their refusal to source cotton from the country until it ceases the forced labour of children and adults in its cotton fields.
The market value of companies that are signatories to the “Company Pledge Against Forced Child and Adult Labour in Uzbek Cotton” has surpassed $1 trillion, with 136 companies now part of the agreement, said the Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN).
By signing the cotton pledge, companies commit to not knowingly source Uzbek cotton until the practice of forced labour is stopped, said Patricia Jurewicz, director of RSN, a non-profit organisation dedicated to bringing together investors, companies and human rights activists to create sustainable supply chains.
“The coalition of companies taking a stand against forced labour in the Uzbek cotton industry is growing,” Jurewicz told Thomson Reuters Foundation. “It’s a further step in stopping cotton that uses slave labour from entering the global market.”
Swedish furniture and housewares company IKEA, Canadian sportswear maker Lululemon Athletica, and British retailer Marks & Spencer are the latest additions to the pledge, which RSN launched in 2011, Jurewicz said.
Human Rights Watch said that for the 2012 harvest, the Uzbek government forced more than a million of its citizens - children and adults, including teachers, doctors, and nurses - to harvest cotton in abusive conditions under the threat of punishment. They are housed in cramped, unheated barracks and often do not have access to clean drinking water.
Uzbekistan - a landlocked, mainly Muslim country of 29 million in the heart of Central Asia - is ranked by rights bodies as one of the world's most repressive states. The world’s 5th largest exporter of cotton, the country denies that children work in its cotton fields and remains silent about the existence of adult forced labour in its cotton industry, estimated to be worth $1 billion annually.
SPINNERS ARE KEY
Jurewicz stressed that more needs to be done to enable companies to move from “not knowingly sourcing” to “knowing and not sourcing” Uzbek cotton.
Traceability is a crucial factor in ensuring supply chains are free from forced labour, but it is complex and expensive to trace everything in the supply chain “down to the dirt in the cotton fields”, she said.
Yarn spinners - the people or companies that take the raw materials and convert them into yarn or textile - are key players in achieving responsible sourcing because they are the ones who purchase cotton and receive shipments, so they know where the cotton is grown. A validation and certification system could help identify those who do not buy from countries that use forced labour, Jurewicz said.
“If you reward the yarn spinners for not buying from those who exploit the pickers, you could shift the market and help end the practice of forced labour,” she said.
She added that it is encouraging that the Uzbek government for the first time is allowing the International Labour Organization (ILO) to conduct an inspection during the ongoing 2013 harvest. But she said that ILO representatives were being accompanied by Uzbek officials, making it difficult for workers to speak openly.