Uzbekistan: Is Cotton Boycott Working?
A boycott of Uzbek cotton by leading Western clothing retailers may be nipping at Tashkent’s pockets, though Asian buyers seem happy to pick up the slack.
The Wall Street Journal reports that at Tashkent’s annual showpiece international cotton fair last week, “not a single Western buyer signed a contract for Uzbekistan’s cotton.”
Last month over 60 multinationals pledged “to not knowingly source Uzbek cotton for the manufacturing of any of our products until the Government of Uzbekistan ends the practice of forced child labor in its cotton sector.”
As EurasiaNet.org reported in September, Tashkent is coming under unprecedented pressure to end the use of child labor, which has been documented by human rights campaigners again during this year’s cotton harvest.
Tashkent firmly denies using child labor. The WSJ quoted an unnamed government official as pointing to a legal ban on children under 16 working at all, and quoted him as saying that if kids are out doing the backbreaking work of picking cotton, “it wasn't because they were forced to do so but because they wanted to.”
But as Western retailers shy away from Uzbek cotton, Russian and Asian buyers are snapping it up, the WSJ said. Russian buyers purchased 40 percent of the cotton available at the Tashkent trade fair and the rest went to buyers from China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Japan, UAE, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, South Korea and Singapore. Companies in most of these countries are evidently not subject to the type of consumer pressure that persuaded Western retailers to sign the boycott.
Then how effective is the campaign? According to data from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), even before the boycott Uzbek cotton was mainly exported to non-Western destinations, with 60 percent going to developing countries, 17 percent to countries in transition and 23 percent to the developed world.
So is the boycott hitting Tashkent where it hurts? Though the volume of orders was down around 8 percent, sales were up 10 percent at this year’s cotton fair, with orders worth $550 million against last year’s $500 million.