Human rights groups have long urged consumers and apparel manufacturers to boycott cotton from Uzbekistan, the world’s second largest cotton exporter, because it is picked using forced and child labor. But as the number of international – mostly Western – manufacturers pledge to eschew Uzbek fibers, Tashkent is looking east, increasing exports to countries where human rights are less of a concern.
In August, Uzbekistan signed a deal to supply 200,000 metric tons of cotton fiber – about one-third of exports – to Bangladesh annually. Now Beijing is ready to purchase 300,000 metric tons – over half of Uzbekistan’s total cotton fiber exports – a year, Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency reported on September 25.
"Accords on stable annual supplies to the tune of at least 300,000 metric tons have been achieved by the governments of the two countries. 'Firm' contracts will be signed in October as part of a cotton fair in Tashkent," RIA Novosti quoted a source in the Uzbek cotton industry as saying.
RIA Novosti said that Uzbek cotton exports were expected to total no less than 600,000 metric tons in the 2012-2013 season, slightly less than 620,000 metric tons sold abroad last year.
The new deal means Bangladesh and China will together account for over 83 percent of Uzbek cotton exports. Previously, Bangladesh accounted for 35 percent, China for 15 percent and South Korea for 7 percent, according to RIA Novosti. (Uzbekistan annually produces over 3 million metric tons of raw cotton and over 1 million metric tons of cotton fiber; about 60 percent of the fiber is exported.)
Yet supply chains are complex and it is said to be difficult for Western apparel companies using textiles in Bangladesh and China to ensure their products do not contain Uzbek cotton.
This year, after years of pressure, Tashkent has reportedly consented to limited monitoring of the cotton harvest by observers from the International Labor Organization (ILO).
Human rights organizations are concerned that the Uzbek officials will carefully stage-manage the ILO tour. On September 24, the Cotton Campaign – a coalition of international human rights organizations working to "end forced labor in the cotton sector of Uzbekistan” – urged the ILO to insist on unfettered access. “The root cause of forced labor and forced child labor in Uzbekistan is the state-order system, under which the government coerces both adults and children to grow and harvest cotton," the group said in an open letter to Constance Thomas, director of the International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC) at the ILO’s permanent secretariat.
The letter said the Uzbek government had instructed cotton pickers to tell ILO monitors that "we came to pick cotton voluntarily in order to help our government, to raise the economy of the country and work hard for our motherland.” Such coercion raises "serious concerns that Uzbek government participation in on-the-ground monitoring is having a chilling effect on Uzbek citizens’ willingness to speak openly with the ILO monitors."