Child labor has existed since the Soviet era in Uzbekistan, the world's third-largest cotton exporter. But the letter, the second such appeal by Uzbek activists in as many months, says that in recent years forced child labor has spread on a "mass scale," and that working conditions for thousands of minors who toil in Uzbek fields have worsened.
One of the letter's signatories is Nadejda Atayeva, who heads a Paris-based Association on Human Rights in Central Asia.
"As you know, child labor has been used to pick and proceed cotton for many years [in Uzbekistan], and the time came when we decided to raise this problem," says Atayeva, whose group is behind the campaign to boycott Uzbek cotton. "We wrote the petition to the international community in order to start debate and address the issue properly because efforts to solve the problem inside the country did not bring any success so far."
Concerns over the use of forced child labor in Uzbekistan began attracting more international attention in October, after the BBC aired a documentary that showed Uzbek children picking cotton for clothing sold in Britain.
The BBC's "Newsnight" program filmed an Uzbek cotton field full of schoolchildren, some as young as 9, hard at work. The documentary showed how children were accompanied by a police escort, which cleared the road for buses and trucks loaded with mattresses to take the kids to cotton fields or back to the barracks. One boy said he was paid just two pence per kilogram -- 40 percent less than officials in the capital, Tashkent, said pickers were paid.
Following the expose, several international companies said they would stop buying Uzbek cotton. Swedish retail giant H&M, Finland's Marimekko, and Estonia's Krenholm were the first. This week, they were joined by Britain's Tesco, the world's third-largest retailer, and by Marks and Spencer, Britain's largest retailer.
"We are really thrilled Marks and Spencer have just announced they will no longer be buying cotton from Uzbekistan," says Juliette Williams, who leads the Uzbek boycott campaign for the Environmental Justice Foundation, a British-based NGO. "And they are telling all their suppliers the same message -- that they need to make sure that there is no Uzbek cotton in the production process to make clothes that will be sold in Marks and Spencer stores. We are really thrilled at that. It's quite a victory."
Williams says the decisions by Britain's major retailers have the potential to change a multibillion-dollar industry and stop abuses such as forced child labor. The boycott could also spread beyond Europe, a major buyer of Uzbek cotton and where one in every four garments contains it.
In Bangladesh, textile and yarn producers tell RFE/RL's Uzbek Service they might look for alternative sources for cotton if Uzbekistan, which supplies most of cotton used in Bangladesh, does not stop its child-labor practices.
Boycotting The Boycott
Not everyone has embraced the boycott.
The International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC), a U.S.-based group that promotes the world cotton trade, called the allegations by Uzbek activists "exaggerated" and "absurd." The ICAC's statement came after the Uzbek activists issued an initial appeal on November 16 to boycott Uzbek cotton.
ICAC Executive Director Terry Townsend has ruled out what he called "factual errors" on the use of defoliants and pesticides in cotton fields that activists claim Uzbek children are inhaling, as well as information on the level of pay for child workers and other issues. Writing on November 30, he concluded that a boycott of Uzbek cotton in international markets would be "highly impractical."
Nevertheless, Townsend says his committee's panel would be involved in "gathering objective information" pertaining to the allegations. The panel will present its findings during the ICAC plenary meeting in Burkina Faso in November 2008, he wrote.
Atayeva said this week's statement was partly in response to the ICAC's reaction to the original call for a boycott. The activists' November appeal was sent to the European Union and the governments of the United States, Russia, and China, as well as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the World Bank, the UN's Children's Fund (UNICEF), and the International Labor Organization.
Cotton revenues are a major source of hard currency for Uzbekistan, with around $1 billion in annual exports. But activists say it's especially lucrative for the ruling elite, such as President Islam Karimov's family and cronies. They say the boycott will not affect ordinary Uzbeks.
The Hidden Cost
Officials in Tashkent have not publicly reacted to recent international outcry. However, in the past they have denied the use of forced child labor in the country's agricultural sector, saying Tashkent adheres to international conventions on child labor and "forbids any form of child labor in cotton fields and other agricultural sectors."
Atayeva, a former schoolteacher, was fired from her job in Uzbekistan for refusing to send sick schoolchildren to the cotton fields. She says the letter's signatories are all Uzbeks with firsthand experience of conditions in Uzbek cotton fields, and that foreigners who deny their accusations appear to have been deceived by the Uzbek government.
"Our appeal is based on our concern over the fate of Uzbekistan's children, who are deprived of a proper education at the expense of collecting 'white gold,'" Atayeva says.
(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)