Finally, the US Cotton Campaign stops its boycott call. The ILO and the EU had long since certified Uzbekistan that the cotton harvest is fair.
The Washington-based Cotton Campaign officially ended its boycott call against Uzbek cotton on March 10, 2022. Since 2009, a total of 331 brands and retailers had signed a “Cotton Pledge” with the NGO, including many of the world’s largest brands such as C&A, Gap and Tesco. Procurement in Uzbekistan was thus a “no-go” for European textile manufacturers.
At the beginning of March, the International Labour Organization (ILO) stated in its annual monitoring of the Uzbek cotton harvest that Uzbekistan is free of child and forced labour. After the political change in Uzbekistan in 2016, child and forced labour were fought with great success. This is already reflected in the ILO reports of previous years. Already in 2018, the ILO certified the country amazing progress. The annual ILO monitoring is broad-based and ensures representativeness and neutrality: during the harvest, independent consultants conduct over 1,000 individual interviews in different regions with workers, farmers and community representatives.
Since April 2021, the European Union has also granted duty-free access to Uzbekistan by granting GSP+ status. This special status is only granted to developing countries that have been proven to have implemented and comply with 27 international conventions in the fields of labour, social affairs, the environment and human rights.
Ultimately, the Cotton Campaign could no longer ignore the already widely known findings. After the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights – a partner of the Cotton Campaign – also stated in its 2021 harvest report that forced labour can no longer be found, the boycott call was finally put to rest. In view of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the shift of global economic weight to Asia, the boycott call seemed more than outdated. Ultimately, it fueled Uzbekistan’s dependence on major buyers Russia and China. They probably care little about working conditions during the harvest, and the demand for Uzbek cotton products is high.
The Cotton Campaign attributes the “historic achievement” to its years of persistent commitment. Certainly, it impressed the Uzbek government that Western brands would not buy in Uzbekistan without an end to forced labor. However, the changes were only made possible by the Uzbek government’s commitment to compliance with the ILO conventions. Adaptation to international standards was recognized as an unavoidable necessity in order to participate competitively and innovatively in the world market.
The tireless and pragmatic work of German development aid, in particular through GIZ on the ground, laid important foundations for this. Those companies that jointly and in partnership achieve improvements in production standards through trade relations with Uzbek companies can now build on them.
The ILO has long since officially called for Uzbekistan to be supported through investments and procurement, instead of denouncing shortcomings that no longer exist.