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Cotton: Staying Engaged for the Long Haul
Image from the Cotton Campaign, used with permission

By Pat Zarega, Senior Director of Shareholder Advocacy, Mercy Investment Services
 

For almost eight years, the Portfolio Advisory Board (PAB) of the Adrian Dominican Sisters has engaged and supported the work of the Cotton Campaign. It is known that forced labor continues in pockets, but nowhere has it been more organized than in countries where governments force citizens to participate. 

The government in Uzbekistan shut down schools and public offices for months at a time to mobilize and send their country’s youth, teachers, nurses, and civil servants to harvest cotton. The government also dictated prices of seeds and fertilizers, controlled the irrigation, and purchased the crop at a fraction of market price. 

More than a decade ago, fellow investors came together to advocate for the end of government-directed forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry. They joined with other human rights NGOs, academics, brand associations, and independent trade unions to form the Cotton Campaign. 

In 2010, the Cotton Campaign and the Responsible Sourcing Network launched the Company Pledge Against Forced Labor in the Cotton Sector of Uzbekistan. By signing it, brands and retailers publicly committed to not use Uzbek cotton produced with state-orchestrated forced labor. The PAB used its position as a shareholder to bring the issue of forced labor in the cotton industry to the table at many brands and retailers. In the end, 331 brands and retailers signed the Pledge, including large companies such as Amazon and Walmart.

Over the years, Cotton Campaign members met with the governments of Uzbekistan and the United States to call for addressing the issue. Civil society in the country continued to document the situation and work with the Uzbek-German Forum to provide well-researched reports updating progress. For the 2021 cotton harvest, the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights found no central government-imposed forced labor.

Given the progress made in protecting the workers’ rights and eradicating systemic forced labor, coalition participants traveled to the country to be alongside the Government of Uzbekistan in announcing the lifting of Uzbek Cotton Pledge. The Cotton Campaign has gathered a video history of the work as a beginning to acknowledge the companies who participated in the pledge. 

The PAB is currently represented in this corporate work by Pat Zerega of Mercy Investment Services and Sister Judy Byron, OP, Consultant. At the lifting of the pledge, Pat stated, “Investors’ deep concern and respect for human rights, as detailed in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) and the [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development] OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Business Conduct, calls us to address the forced labor situation in the Cotton Industry. We have worked with the Cotton Campaign and supported the Cotton Pledge to address forced labor in Uzbekistan. The findings of independent civil society monitoring the 2021 cotton harvest shows that Uzbekistan has successfully eliminated state-imposed forced labor in cotton production. We are pleased to acknowledge this breakthrough while at the same time calling for continued due diligence by all companies in the Uzbek textile industry, urging them to establish and maintain strong labor standards and engage with the Cotton Campaign.”
 

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Portfolio Advisory Board,  Adrian Dominican Sisters | 1257 E. Siena Heights Drive | Adrian, Michigan 49221
Phone: (517) 266-3523 | Email: