Uzbekistan has called on a global human rights coalition, the Cotton Campaign, to lift an international boycott of Uzbek cotton and textiles, citing progress in eliminating forced labor and the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
In an open letter to the Cotton Campaign on April 15, Uzbek Labor Minister Nozim Khusanov said the Central Asian country was facing an "unprecedented dual threat” to the economy and public health due to the spread of the coronavirus and lockdown measures.
The government estimates that the end of the boycott, which more than 260 apparel manufacturers and retailers currently follow, could double textile exports to Western markets and create much-needed jobs. The optimistic assessment comes as global demand for apparel has crashed amid the pandemic and brands have been canceling orders all over the world, raising questions of whether lifting the boycott would have an impact.
The Tashkent government says that nearly 7,000 companies in cotton-related industries employ more than 200,000 workers, whose incomes support 1 million people in the country. An estimated 150,000 people in the country have already lost their jobs and more than 140,000 migrant workers have returned home without an income source, it says.
"Your decision to end the cotton boycott would be pivotal. Uzbekistan’s textile sector is one of the country’s leading sources of employment," the letter states.
Rights groups launched the boycott campaign in 2006 to force Uzbekistan to eradicate a long-running state-controlled system forcing millions of citizens to pick cotton and meet harvest quotas.
Since coming to power in 2016, President Shavkat Mirziyoev has gradually introduced laws to eliminated forced labor and child labor, and banned provincial authorities from forcing students and public workers to pick cotton. Last month, he signed a decree abolishing the state quota system for cotton production.
However, civil society groups including the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights say that, while Mirziyoev has taken positive steps, forced labor in the cotton sector remains widespread and some agricultural reforms closely mimic the old system.
The Cotton Campaign, which has been working with the Uzbek government to improve the sector, told RFE/RL that Tashkent has taken "significant steps" to end forced labor and implement structural reforms.
"But progress has lagged on...empowering civil society, including registering independent nongovernmental organizations and creating space for workers to organize independently," Cotton Campaign coordinator Allison Gill said.
"We urge the government to allow a free and vibrant civil society to develop, which will help promote transparency and accountability and create a climate for responsible investment," she added.