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CSR Report: Uzbek Cotton Issue Getting Thorny

Child labor problems flair as companies weigh options.

WASHINGTON — The fashion industry has galvanized around the effort to eradicate the alleged use of forced child labor in the cotton industry in Uzbekistan, attacking the issue from all angles and making some strides, but obstacles remain.

This story first appeared in the October 26, 2011 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

More than 60 U.S. and European companies and the American Apparel & Footwear Association signed a pledge in September to “not knowingly source” Uzbek cotton using forced child labor, but the issue has been difficult to resolve. Several companies, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., have been telling suppliers for several years not to purchase cotton from Uzbekistan.

The Responsible Sourcing Network, a project of the nonprofit organization As You Sow, which is coordinating the pledge and initiative, estimates that nearly 2 million children in Uzbekistan, some as young as 7 years old, are forced to leave school by the government to toil in the cotton fields for two to three months a year. They face 10-hour workdays, are exposed to harmful chemicals and risk physical harm or expulsion from school if they do not pick a quota of 100 pounds of raw cotton a day, according to the Responsible Sourcing Network.

The coalitions claim the Uzbekistan government denies the practice and have refused to allow inspectors from the International Labour Organization into the country during the cotton harvest to document the use of child labor. Uzbekistan has made public moves to address international concerns, including ratification of the ILO’s minimum age convention in 2009 and the ILO’s Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention in 2008, “but so far there has been limited systematic evidence to determine the extent of implementation,” according to a study by the School of Oriental & African Studies at the University of London.

Officials at the Uzbekistan embassy in Washington could not be reached for comment.

Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum, which has been involved in the issue for four years, said, “This is unacceptable and we’re now three years in the running to try to get the Uzbek government to accept a high level mission from the ILO to go in and monitor and document the abuses. The ultimate objective is to stop the practice of conscripted child labor….But it is also about enabling companies to make clear to their suppliers the stand they are taking against these practices.”

Gearhart said supply chain traceability is a real concern because large cotton traders often buy the cotton and sell it to textile firms in China and other countries that spin it into yarn and weave it into fabric.

“For us, we would consider the company pledge a minimum level of effort,” she said. “We’re looking for much more transparency.”

Nate Herman, vice president of international trade at the AAFA, said traceability is “definitely a challenge.”

“In the past, the focus on social responsibility was on direct suppliers to the brands and retailers and the actual factory making the garment, but in the case of Uzbekistan cotton…now you are going back three, four or 10 steps in the supply chain, which makes it much more difficult,” Herman said.

Erik Autor, vice president and international trade counsel at the National Retail Foundation, said progress in addressing the problem has been “frustratingly slow.”

“I think one of the lessons to learn from this is the limits of leverage the business community actually has on what goes on on the other end of the supply chain,” Autor said. “As we have seen in other situations, even when NGOs and businesses follow suit in instituting bans on raw materials on the other end of the supply chain, it ends up not having an impact. The Uzbek government has basically said…it doesn’t care. They won’t even admit there is a problem. That is what is really unique about this issue in the corporate social responsibility world…it is government complicity.”

Acknowledging that at times the effort has felt like “banging your head against the wall,” Patricia Jurewicz, director of RSN, said the coalition is committed to putting continued pressure on the U.S. through Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Uzbekistan government and textile suppliers and cotton traders, to establish the reforms and eliminate child labor.

The industry’s next initiative is dubbed “Strategic Mills and Spinners,” which RSN will coordinate and ramp up next year, she said, adding that 14 apparel brands and retailers have signed on to provide information on their supply chains.