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Uzbekistan launches PR campaign to lift cotton boycott

Uzbekistan’s latest public relations hire focuses on fighting the international boycott of its cotton industry, a newly disclosed lobbying filing reveals.

The Central Asian country’s Export Promotion Agency hired Washington PR firm Xenophon Strategies in April for $585,000 to provide public relations and media outreach, Foreign Lobby Report first reported Monday. The new document however clarifies that the scope of work includes “services in support” of the agency’s efforts to end the so-called Cotton Campaign boycott in addition to supporting economic development activities.

Xenophon is notably charged with “production of an Environmental, Social and Governance report for Uzbekistan” as well as creating a “branded communications campaign centered on governmental reforms, international trade and economic development.” Xenophon did not respond to a request for comment. This is the firm’s first foreign government client.

The PR push comes as the government of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has promised wholesale improvements to the rule of law and individual freedoms following the death of dictator Islam Karimov in 2016. One major focus has been reforming the country’s Soviet-era, state-dominated system for picking cotton. It is the world’s largest seasonal labor mobilization and one that has long relied on forced labor.

Cotton is Uzbekistan’s main cash crop, a “white gold” worth more than $1 billion. Since 2006 however a coalition of human rights groups have pressured western textile manufacturers and apparel companies to boycott Uzbek cotton, forcing the country to turn to Asian markets that fetch lower prices. The campaign is coordinated by the nonprofit International Labor Rights Forum in Washington, DC.

Debate over whether to end the boycott has fired up in recent months, with the Uzbek government saying it continues to reform its legacy labor practices after Mirziyoyev issued a decree in 2018 aimed at ending forced labor. Last year, the US Department of Labor determined that “the use of forced child labor in the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan has been significantly reduced to isolated incidents.”

Tashkent has argued that regaining access to international markets will help improve the lives of all Uzbeks and help consolidate reforms made thus far.

“Lifting of the cotton boycott is one of the few measures that could quickly generate much-needed jobs and support the economic wellbeing of Uzbeks during the COVID-19 crisis,” Uzbek labor minister Nozim Khusanov wrote in an open letter to the Cotton Campaign in April. “Textile production alone employs 200,000 workers in Uzbekistan; their wages support the livelihoods of one million people.”

Boycott supporters however say that while the number of workers forced to pick cotton has dropped considerably from a peak of more than 1 million, labor conditions remain too abusive to end the boycott.

“We recognize and are heartened by the historic progress that Uzbekistan has made toward ending forced labor and members look forward to considering sourcing from Uzbekistan,” Nate Herman, senior vice president of the American Apparel and Footwear Association, told Reuters in April. “However, given brands’ zero-tolerance policies on forced labor, anti-slavery legal requirements, and the International Labor Organization’s finding that more than 100,000 people were in forced labor during Uzbekistan’s 2019 cotton harvest, brands need additional assurances of worker protections.”

Xenophon President and CEO David Fuscus, Senior Vice President Mark Hazlin, Vice President Jennifer Lay and Hayden Bardorf are registered on the account. Also working on the account is Xenophon’s sister agency in Europe, Germany-based Cometis.

Cometis was paid $6,000 on May 10 and has at least five people working on the account, including CEO Michael Diegelmann. One of the main drivers of the boycott campaign, the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, is based in Berlin.