In the underwear department of your favorite apparel store, it may seem like a simple choice – Fruit of the Loom or Hanes. But half a world away your decision could affect whether a child goes to school, or is marched off to cotton fields and put to work.
Each fall, authorities in Uzbekistan force some 2 million children and adults to pick cotton. Students, if they refuse to participate, are threatened with expulsion, adults with the loss of their jobs and social benefits for their families. Under this system, the government purchases cotton at a preferential price and sells it abroad at much higher market rates. The handy profit appears to benefit the country’s ruling elites.
Now, over 100 global apparel brands have pledged to boycott Uzbek cotton and textiles. By doing so, they are telling the “the government of Uzbekistan that the apparel industry does not tolerate modern day slave labor,” says the Oakland-based Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN), which has organized the pledge.
In its fifth year, the international campaign against Uzbek cotton is having a positive impact, asserts RSN Director Patricia Jurewicz. “Reports from activists who saw this year's cotton harvest agree that fewer young children were forced into the fields. Unfortunately, the Uzbek government is forcing more older children, aged 15 to 19, and adults into their places,” she told EurasiaNet.org.
Some of those adults include doctors and nurses, the BBC reported last month, leaving clinics and hospitals short staffed. Other journalists have found teachers in the field, meaning that even if young schoolchildren are not being forced to pick cotton this year, schools are still, in some cases, closing for the fall harvest.
As of November 1, the list of 108 companies that have joined the boycott includes Fruit of the Loom, Gap, and Levi Strauss & Co.
RSN has reached out to Hanes, as well, but the company has not yet joined the campaign.
“Participation of well-known brands raises consumers’ awareness. But even more importantly, it sends a message to the Uzbek government that the use of slave labor is unacceptable,” said Jurewicz.
The idea for a global boycott started in 2007, when Uzbek human rights groups called on Tashkent to allow independent monitoring of the cotton harvest by the International Labor Organization. Tashkent never responded.
In September, more than 100 Uzbek civil society leaders, refugees and concerned citizens reiterated the call, urging the European Union and United States to send a stronger signal to Tashkent by canceling trade benefits for Uzbek textile manufacturers. Despite the cotton boycott pledge, “international pressure remains imperceptible for the government of Uzbekistan,” the Uzbek group said in a statement posted online by the Cotton Campaign. [Editor’s Note: The Cotton Campaign receives funding from the Open Society Foundations; EurasiaNet.org operates under OSF’s auspices.]
Identifying the source of cotton in finished clothing can be difficult, because raw Uzbek fibers are fed into the supply chains of Asian textile companies, which then sell their products to Western apparel manufacturers. “RSN encourages companies to track their cotton's country of origin and audit that documentation to ensure that the cotton does not originate from Uzbekistan legitimately or illegitimately,” said Jurewicz.
An RSN employee is currently visiting Chinese textile mills to research purchasing decisions there. The organization will release a report early next year, she added.