The National Retail Federation and other trade associations representing the U.S. retail and apparel industries demanded that Uzbekistan take immediate action to end the use of child labor in the harvesting of cotton, and said member companies could boycott products made from Uzbek cotton if action is not taken.

“Clearly, the legal framework against the use of forced child labor exists in Uzbekistan,” NRF and the other associations said in a letter to President Islam Abduganievich Karimov. “Despite this fact, there are continued reports of the systemic and persistent use of forced child labor in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan.”

“Our member companies are firmly committed to sourcing in countries respectful of human and workers’ rights,” the letter said. “As such, the organized use of forced child labor to harvest cotton in Uzbekistan is completely unacceptable.

The letter was signed by the National Retail Federation, the Retail Industry Leaders Association, the American Apparel and Footwear Association, and the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel. It was hand delivered today to the Uzbekistan Embassy in Washington.

“Forced use of child labor is absolutely unacceptable and will not be tolerated by the U.S. retail industry under any circumstances whatsoever,” said NRF President and CEO Tracy Mullin, who signed the letter. “The retail industry is sending a clear message to the government of Uzbekistan: stop supporting this abuse of children immediately or we cannot support doing business with you. We are asking the U.S. State Department, the International Labor Organization and industry colleagues from Europe and Canada to join us in this battle. We will not be satisfied as long as a single child is being abused in this way.”

Non-governmental organizations and the news media have reported recently that children as young as 10 to 15 years old are being forced to harvest cotton in Uzbekistan, working under hazardous conditions, in violation of international labor standards and in violation of the children’s human rights. The reports allege that the Uzbek government is directly organizing the forced labor.

Uzbekistan is the world’s third-largest cotton exporter after the United States and sub-Saharan Africa, accounting for about 10 percent of world trade, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Cotton represents 20 percent of Uzbekistan’s exports and 15 percent of its gross domestic product. Members of the trade association signing today’s letter represent 90 percent of U.S. purchases of cotton and cotton-based merchandise.

In addition to the letter to President Karimov, the associations today also sent letters to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and International Labor Organization Director General Juan Somavia.

The National Retail Federation is the world’s largest retail trade association, with membership that comprises all retail formats and channels of distribution including department, specialty, discount, catalog, Internet, independent stores, chain restaurants, drug stores and grocery stores as well as the industry’s key trading partners of retail goods and services. NRF represents an industry with more than 1.6 million U.S. retail companies, more than 25 million employees – about one in five American workers – and 2007 sales of $4.5 trillion.