Assurance Continuous Improvement
Photo credit: Boulos Abdelmalek, D&B Graphics. Location: Kafr Saad, Egypt, 2023.
Photo credit: Leyla Shamchiyeva, Better Cotton.

By Leyla Shamchiyeva, Senior Decent Work Manager at Better Cotton

At Better Cotton, one of the core elements of our standard is our Assurance Programme, which ensures that only farms that meet all the core requirements of our Principles and Criteria are able to sell licensed Better Cotton. Our assurance model is critical to ensuring that our Members can source Better Cotton with confidence.

Key to this model is robust monitoring to determine whether farms are complying with our requirements, and a recent monitoring initiative in Uzbekistan provides a great illustration of how our unique approach works to drive continuous improvement.

Once infamous for its labour issues, our programme in Uzbekistan is now a testament to the power of dedicated monitoring and a commitment to decent work. Let’s take a look at how Better Cotton contributed to the cause.

The Challenge and Better Cotton’s Approach

Uzbekistan’s historical struggles with state-sponsored forced and child labour in cotton production are well-documented, and this was a key focus as we set up our programme in the country. It is essential that we are able to verify that farms in the country are meeting our requirements around decent work, which are based on the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) fundamental principles and rights at work, including freedom from child, forced and compulsory labour.

To achieve this, we introduced enhanced decent work monitoring alongside our regular licensing assessment. This dual approach aimed to address the concerns lingering concerns about forced labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector and ensured that only fair labour practices were being implemented.

In-Depth Monitoring and Methodology

The recent monitoring initiative in Uzbekistan was a rigorous process. It involved semi-structured interviews with over 1,000 workers across 12 farms in 7 provinces, providing a diverse and in-depth perspective of the labour situation on the ground.

This process was not only about checking compliance but also understanding the everyday realities of the workers, their challenges, aspirations, and complaints.

Findings and Outcomes

The monitoring findings were illuminating – we found no evidence of systemic state-imposed forced labour or child labour. Our approach went beyond merely identifying labour violations, though. We explored a range of decent work issues, including fair pay, working conditions, and workers’ rights, ensuring a holistic assessment of labour practices.

Although it’s positive that forced labour and child labour have been successfully eradicated from Uzbekistan, Better Cotton’s goal is to also ensure there aren’t any other blind spots when it comes to labour rights.

Proactive Measures and Continuous Improvement

When issues such as wage delays or health and safety concerns were identified, Better Cotton acted swiftly and minor issues were resolved through direct dialogue with farm management. We will ensure that farm workers continue to be compensated fairly through continued decent work monitoring. We envisage that this will initially be carried out annually, with a view to ultimately taking a risk-based approach, which will be triggered when we become aware of an emerging risk.

If found, more serious concerns would be escalated to the labour inspectorate. Better Cotton continues to endorse the ILO’s work to strengthen the capacities of the labour inspectorate, demonstrating our commitment to not just identify but actively address labour issues.

Better Cotton’s Assurance System and Its Importance

Our assurance approach in Uzbekistan is crucial for demonstrating the credibility of our system to the global market and to our Members. Coupled with the launch of our traceability solution, which enables our Members to track Traceable Better Cotton to the sourcing country, the robustness of our monitoring and the transparency of our processes provide confidence for those looking to source licensed Better Cotton from Uzbekistan.

This initiative, carried out in collaboration with the Uzbekistan government, works in unison with our sustainability roadmap for Uzbekistan.

Future Directions and Call to Action

The journey does not end here. We are continually refining our methods and expanding our reach to ensure that every cotton farm in Uzbekistan, and beyond, adheres to our high standards.

Better Cotton Members will have the chance to learn more about our programme in Uzbekistan at our upcoming meeting in Tashkent on December 12, which will convene a wide range of stakeholders, including international organisations, embassies, government, industry actors, civil society, human rights activists, and retailers and brands. This event will offer deeper insights into the transformative changes in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector and our future plans. Keep an eye out for more information about the outcomes of the event in the coming days.

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