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Industry Groups Urge Reform of Uzbek Cotton Farming

Call for ILO oversight to end child and forced labor.

WASHINGTON — Four fashion industry trade groups sent a letter to Uzbekistan’s foreign minister of affairs on Tuesday urging him to take steps to eradicate the use of forced child and adult labor in the country’s cotton sector.

The heads of the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel, American Apparel & Footwear Association, Retail industry Leaders Association and National Retail Federation sent the letter to Abdulaziz Komilov, Uzbekistan’s minister of foreign affairs, who is reportedly meeting this week with State Department officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry.

“Regrettably, the government of Uzbekistan demonstrated in the 2012 harvest that it has not made serious and sustained efforts to end forced labor of children and adults in the cotton fields,” they said in the letter. “As a result, many of the world’s largest apparel brands and retailers have already taken action to end any sourcing of cotton harvested in Uzbekistan.”

Human Rights Watch, in its 2012 World Report, notes that Uzbekistan “continues to force 1.5 million to 2 million schoolchildren…to help with the cotton harvest for two months a year.”

The groups, which have been pressing for action on the issue for the past few years, are calling for the Uzbek government to allow the International Labor Organization to monitor cotton harvesting and demanding that trade in Uzbek cotton be conditioned on ILO verification on the end of forced labor in cotton production.

More than 60 U.S. and European companies and trade groups signed a pledge in September to “not knowingly source” Uzbek cotton using forced child labor.

“In our letter, we tried to not just complain about what is going on, but to provide constructive recommendations about what the government can do,” said Julia Hughes, president of USA-ITA. “Part of that is relatively simple — allow ILO monitors to be in Uzbek for the cotton harvest. That seems to be a relatively simple thing they could do. What everybody wants to see is positive movement. Perhaps it will not be resolved overnight, but at least we would see a change in policy direction.”