Eliminating forced labour in the cotton industry, Uzbekistan

Cotton tree

Cotton harvesting in Uzbekistan has generated significant concerns for a number of years, arising chiefly from the government co-ordinated use of child and forced labour, and the occurrence of widespread human rights violations which take place. According to the Responsible Sourcing Network, over a million Uzbek citizens are forced into fields to pick cotton every year or face large fines.

This is why since 2007 Tesco and F&F asked suppliers not to source cotton from Uzbekistan for any of our products, and we asked that the source of raw cotton used in products is identified. We were one of the first retailers to ban the use of Uzbek cotton in the supply chain.

In 2014, we were proud to solidify our commitment by signing up to the Responsible Sourcing Network’s (RSN) cotton pledge, a key way by which industry can put pressure on the Uzbek Government to end the use of forced labour.

"I applaud Tesco and the other retailers and brands for maintaining their commitments to avoid cotton from Uzbekistan."

Patricia Jurewicz - Director, Responsible Sourcing Network

What are we doing?

We have continued to work hard to ensure that, together with our suppliers, we are minimizing the chances of Uzbekistan cotton getting into our products. The cotton supply chain is one of the most complex, convoluted and fragmented supply chains in the world – so this is no easy feat.

We have updated and launched our new Cotton Sourcing Requirements for all Tesco and F&F suppliers, asking them to sign up as a commitment to our policy. This policy not only provides a background on the Uzbekistan labour abuse situation, but also makes clear requests from our suppliers including to communicate to their suppliers - encouraging them to also commit in writing and verifying cotton country of origin. We believe it’s important to work together with our suppliers and colleagues on this, which is why we are mapping our supply chains, training internal colleagues, and raising awareness.

More recently, there have also been worrying reports that Turkmenistan, a much smaller cotton producing country, also uses Government sponsored forced labour. Again working with Responsible Sourcing Network, we have teamed up with other retailers, trade unions and human rights organisations to convey our concerns to the Government of Turkmenistan. Knowing that the majority of Turkmenistan cotton is sold to Turkey, we have spoken and visited our mills in Turkey to identify the use of Turkmenistan cotton in our supply chain. To date we have not identified any and we continue engaging with our suppliers. We are also continuing our engagement with the Responsible Sourcing Network and the Cotton Campaign to understand recommended actions for retailers and brands, including a possible ban on Turkmenistan cotton.

Worker welfare in general is of paramount importance to Tesco, which is why we also monitor working conditions in factories supplying us wherever they are in the world. Within the supply chain, we expect our suppliers to adhere to our labour code of practice, the Ethical Trade Initiative Base Code.

We know there is still much more to do, and we know we can’t do it on our own - collaboration is crucial to eliminating human rights abuses deep in global supply chains. This is why we are committed to working in partnership with our suppliers, and other stakeholders like the Responsible Sourcing Network so that we can make a difference.

"Eliminating cotton picked with forced labour is a critical step in the responsible sourcing process, and this, as well as eradicating other human rights abuses buried deep in global supply chains, requires concerted and coordinated efforts."

Giles Bolton, Responsible Sourcing Director for Tesco.