Companies, Not World Bank Make Progress on Forced Labor in Uzbekistan

A cotton field in Samarqand, Uzbekistan.
A cotton field in Samarqand, Uzbekistan.

Last year, another cotton harvest in Uzbekistan made its way to the market on the backs of Uzbek citizens forced to labor in the cotton fields.  Yet, while some significant corporate holdouts remain, recent research by the Responsible Sourcing Network suggests that several international brands — including Hanes, Sears and Target — are doing more to keep Uzbek cotton out of their products and supply chains.

In light of the World Bank’s recent decision not to investigate connections between the Bank’s development projects and the forced labor in Uzbekistan, positive steps by apparel and home goods companies are vital.

The RSN pledge and survey

In 2011, the Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN) launched its “Cotton Pledge” campaign, asking apparel and home goods companies around the world to commit to keeping Uzbek cotton out of their products for as long as Uzbekistan continues to rely on forced labor.  As of Jan. 16, 165 companies have signed the pledge — including household names like adidas, Gap, Patagonia and Sears, the latest corporate signatory.

Recently, RSN decided that eliciting company promises was not enough — the group would also seek to measure the cotton sourcing practices of some of the world’s biggest corporate cotton consumers.  To that end, RSN, a human rights project of the nonprofit organization As You Sow, issued a survey to 49 apparel and home goods companies and graded their responses on a 100-point scale. The survey relied on data from 11 different indicators, in categories ranging from “public disclosure” to “implementation and audits.”

RSN published its initial results last year, which were by and large disappointing.  Only five companies’ scores eclipsed the 50-point mark; 19 companies scored under 25 points; and two companies scored zero.  Further, only 4 percent of the 49 companies surveyed had supplier codes of conduct that reached the harvesting level, and only 2 percent “fully disclose[d] progress and/or any challenges with their strategies on Uzbek cotton.”  The lowest scoring companies were All Saints (0), Urban Outfitters (0), Costco (2.5), Forever 21 (2.5) and Sears (2.5), at the time not even a signatory to the pledge.

More positively, 41 percent of the companies surveyed had requirements for tracing their cotton’s country of origin, and 35 percent of companies described what RSN categorized as “robust” sourcing policies and action plans.

RSN’s 2015 addendum

After RSN published its 2014 report on the survey results, a number of brands — perhaps unhappy with what their scores communicated about their efforts to oppose forced labor — requested an opportunity to supplement their initial survey responses.  RSN re-submitted the survey to 19 of the original 49 companies, seven of which responded to the second survey.

Highlights:  The new responses were mostly encouraging.  All seven of the responding companies significantly improved their scores and all are now engaged in at least one multi-stakeholder initiative to source more responsibly and/or operate more sustainably.

Crucially, six of the seven now report having adopted supplier codes of conduct that reach all the way down to the harvesting level.

One of the biggest gainers, Hanes, reported that virtually all of its cotton is processed through spinners and knitting facilities Hanes itself owns, and sourced almost exclusively from within the U.S.  Consequently, Hanes’s score shot up from a meager 10 out of 100 to a respectable 54.5.

The newest signatory to the Cotton Pledge, Sears, saw its score rise from an embarrassing 2.5 out of 100 (making it one of the five lowest scoring companies on the original survey) to a 26. Target, Kate Spade and Kering also greatly improved.

Lowlights:  Some of the results were less positive, however.  For one, neither of the companies that scored zero on the initial survey, Urban Outfitters and All Saints, even bothered to respond to the second survey.  In fact, none of the 10 lowest scoring companies on RSN’s list responded.

Most of the 49 companies also remain reluctant to report on tangible progress (or not) made toward rooting out Uzbek cotton from their supply chains, perhaps for fear of being criticized for doing too little.  This lack of transparency is endemic in the industry and, to RSN, speaks to the challenges companies face in actually holding their suppliers to account.  Enforcement faces a real hurdle when a contractual relationship does not extend from a brand all the way down its supply chain to the harvesting level, for instance.

The complicity of the World Bank

Last month, the World Bank announced that its Inspections Panel would not further examine the connection between forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields and the Bank’s development projects there, even though an initial review by the panel found that the Bank’s Uzbekistan projects were “plausibly linked” to the government’s forced labor practices.  The panel’s decision not to further investigate was based at least in part on the fact that the International Labor Organization (ILO) is already monitoring the situation.  The ILO has touted improvements in the Uzbek cotton-picking operation, including that the government now relies less on the labor of children; yet, as I have pointed out before, prominent human rights groups disagreed with some of the core findings of the Uzbek monitors and have documented continued human rights abuses that go beyond simply forcing citizens to leave their jobs to labor solely for the government’s benefit.

As a result of the World Bank’s decision, the Uzbek government will continue to receive international financing that is earmarked for its cotton operations — operations which would crumble if the government gave up its forced labor practices entirely.

Thus, it is now more important than ever for major apparel and home goods companies to ensure that Uzbek cotton is not used in their products.  It is therefore particularly heartening to read of the progress documented by RSN and find that brands are taking this issue seriously.  Ultimately, Uzbek cotton will find its way to the market, but we and the companies making the products we buy don’t have to support it.

Image credit: Flickr/David Stanley

Michael Kourabas

Trained as a lawyer, I now focus on legal business development, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and business & human rights. My past experience includes work on complex commercial litigation, international human rights advocacy, education policy, pro bono legal representation, and analysis of CSR challenges in both the private and public sectors.

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