Lawyers challenge UK imports of ‘slavery-tainted’ Uzbek cotton


The UK government is facing legal action to try and stop the importation of cotton harvested with state-sponsored forced labour from Uzbekistan. 

The Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights and the Global Legal Action Network (Glan), a team of human rights lawyers, are launching a judicial review of preferential tariffs applied to Uzbek cotton, arguing that it is promoting the importation of goods tainted with modern slavery, The Guardian reported.  

The country has faced sustained criticism over the mass enforced mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of Uzbeks to work as unpaid labourers during harvest and planting seasons. 

Uzbekistan is one of the world’s biggest cotton producers. The sector generates more than $1bn (£770m) in annual revenue and this year is expected to harvest 2.9m tons of raw cotton. 

In recent years, following bans by international fashion brands alarmed by the accusations of forced labour in the supply chain of Uzbek cotton, the government has pushed through a series of reforms promising to eradicate child labour and the conscription of public sector employees. 

Yet human rights activists say that forced labour continues. Last year, a report by the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights found that at least 400,000 people were subject to state-sponsored forced labour in the cotton harvest in 2018. 

This year, despite the Uzbek president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, stating that no public sector employees will be involved in this year’s cotton harvest, local activists report that enforced manual labour of government employees such as fire fighters, police officers, oil depot workers and public water company workers is ongoing. 

The UK currently only imports a small amount of cotton from Uzbekistan. Despite this, the Glan and the German-Uzbek Forum says that it hopes the judicial review will ultimately lay the groundwork for new legislation that would ban all goods made with child or forced labour from entering the UK. This type of legislation already exists in the United States. According to the global slavery index, UK consumers bought £14bn of goods made by slaves in 2017. 

“The judicial review is designed to force the government to reconsider actively encouraging the importation of goods made with slave labour into the UK,” said Gearóid Ó Cuinn, director of the Glan. 

“At present there is a torrent of goods that are entering our supply chains and are being sold to unwitting consumers that could be tainted with modern slavery and human misery. Nothing like this has been tried in the European courts before and I hope that this action we’re taking in the UK could potentially reverberate across the European continent.” 

The network has launched a crowd funding campaign to raise funds towards the cost of the case. (Source: The Guardian)