Concerns that Uzbek cotton harvest will again use forced labour - firms alleged to have supported 2014 harvest

In April 2015, the Uzbek-German Forum reported that multinationals in Uzbekistan supported the 2014 cotton harvest, which alledgedly used "systematic, mass forced mobilization of labor". The Uzbek-German Forum indicated that some of these companies claim that this support is required by the Uzbek authorities. Companies have allegedly provided workers for, and contributed financially to, the harvest.

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre invited these companies to state their position on support of the 2015 cotton harvest. General Motors, TeliaSonera, Telenor and VimpelCom responed. Their statements are below.

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Item
23 September 2015

Telenor's response to Cotton Campaign rejoinder

Author: Telenor

For clarification, Telenor Group has no operations or employees in Uzbekistan.

Item
23 September 2015

VimpelCom's response to Cotton Campaign rejoinder

Author: VimpelCom

We note the comments from Cotton Campaign.  In 2015, we reconfirm that we are not supporting the cotton harvest in any way.

NGO rejoinder
22 September 2015

Cotton Campaign Rejoinder

Author: the Cotton Campaign

"Regarding Companies Operating in Uzbekistan and Contributions to the Forced-Labor System", 8 September 2015

With the cotton harvest underway in Uzbekistan, corporate contributions to the Uzbek government’s forced-labor system of mobilizing cotton pickers remain a serious concern. The statements on the issue by General Motors, TeliaSonera, Telenor and Vimpelcom raise as many questions as they provide answers... 

Teliasonera should now clarify whether its dialogue with the Uzbek government means it will not be contributing to the 2015 harvest in any form, and whether the Uzbek government has changed its policy on requiring contributions to the harvest...

Vimpelcom should... clarify what changed in Uzbek government policy that allows the company to not be “supporting the cotton harvest,” and whether “supporting” includes all forms of contributions...

GM’s stated commitment to “the highest level of ethical standards” is welcome, yet in its statement the company merely reiterates the participation of GM Uzbekistan workers in the cotton harvest and reports expanded GM involvement in the Uzbek cotton industry by “supporting mechanization.”...

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Article
9 September 2015

Concerns that "government sponsored system of forced labour" will continue in 2015 harvest

Author: Anti-Slavery International

As the annual cotton harvest in Uzbekistan started last week with renewed concerns that government sponsored system of forced labour will continue this year, Anti-Slavery International has released a two minute animated video explaining the issue... Hundreds of thousands of people, including children, are forced out of their regular jobs and schools and sent to the cotton fields to toil for weeks in arduous and hazardous conditions, with cases of people dying in fields from extreme heat and accidents. 

 

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Company response
8 September 2015

General Motors' response

Author: General Motors

General Motors and its partners are committed to maintaining the highest level of ethical standards wherever we do business. Accordingly, no workers at any of the GM operations in Uzbekistan are required to participate in the cotton harvest and we are working with our partner to achieve zero participation.  In addition GM’s minority-interest JV has supported the mechanization of the cotton industry in Uzbekistan to reduce the demands on manual labor

Company response
8 September 2015

Telenor's response

Author: Telenor

Telenor Group appreciates the opportunity to respond to your query regarding the Uzbek cotton picking season. The issue covered in Norwegian media in 2014 that you refer to relates to Unitel, an operator part of VimpelCom Ltd. Telenor Group is a minority shareholder in VimpelCom Ltd. As part of our regular investor dialogue with VimpelCom Ltd. we have raised the issue and expressed our concern. We have also on several occasions, including at Vimpelcom Ltd. AGMs stated our expectation that VimpelCom Ltd. apply the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Telenor Group believes it is important to work to respect human rights and will continue to raise the issue in our investor dialogue with VimpelCom Ltd.

Company response
8 September 2015

TeliaSonera's response

Author: TeliaSonera

In its “Annual and Sustainability Report 2015” TeliaSonera stated the following:

“We continue to see our involuntary support and participation to the cotton harvest, which is not linked in any way to our business, as problematic and undesirable. In 2015, we will engage in close dialogue with human rights NGOs and other key stakeholders to define our position and approach.”

During the year, TeliaSonera has had an extensive dialogue with many stakeholders, including some NGOs and relevant parts of the UN system, especially the ILO, the World Bank, the European Union and representatives of the Uzbek administration. We have explained that, in view of its sustainability policies, TeliaSonera is not in a position to support directly or indirectly the cotton harvest, and that the company’s ambition is to concentrate its contribution to the economic development of Uzbekistan by focusing on developing information communication and technologies.

Company response
8 September 2015

VimpelCom's response

Author: VimpelCom

In response to your recent enquiry regarding the 2015 cotton harvest in Uzbekistan, I can confirm that neither VimpelCom nor Unitel are supporting the cotton harvest.

Article
7 September 2015

Concerns raised regarding multinationals involvement in 2015 harvest

Author: Cotton Campaign

... For three years in a row, GM Uzbekistan workers have reported that their company has sent them to the cotton harvest. In 2014, Teliasonera and Telenor reported that their companies sponsored the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan. To avoid perpetuating the Uzbek government’s forced labor system of cotton production and exposure to liability for involvement in it, companies operating in Uzbekistan should sign the Commitment Against Forced Labor in Uzbekistan, establish an independent human rights monitoring and public reporting program of the company’s operations and supply chain in Uzbekistan, and divest from Uzbekistan if involvement in the forced labor system persists as a requirement to operate in the country...

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Article
7 September 2015

Recommendations to companies operating in Uzbekistan

Author: Cotton Campaign

To avoid perpetuating the forced labor system of cotton production in Uzbekistan and exposure to liability for involvement in it, the Cotton Campaign recommends that companies operating in Uzbekistan:

  1. Sign the public Commitment Against Forced Labor in Uzbekistan, refuse demands to contribute personnel, cash or in-kind to the cotton harvest, and report requests for such contributions publicly and to their home-country governments.
  2. Establish an independent human rights monitoring and public reporting program of the company’s operations and supply chain in Uzbekistan 
  3. Divest from Uzbekistan if involvement in the forced labor system persists as a requirement to operate in the country, after using all available leverage with the Uzbek government to convey that continued investment requires an end of the practice

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