The annual cotton harvest is underway in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan

The annual cotton harvest is underway in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan

Industry stakeholders are ramping up pressure on Uzbekistan – and, for the first time, Turkmenistan too – to end the use of forced labour in cotton production as the annual cotton harvest gets underway in the two countries.

Working under the banner of the Cotton Campaign, the groups say the Uzbek government last year forced over a million citizens to the fields to harvest cotton, while the Turkmen government forced tens of thousands. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are the world’s fifth and seventh-largest cotton exporters respectively.

“Since neither government has changed its cotton production system it is inevitable that government-orchestrated forced labour will continue this harvest season, in violation of national and international law,” they add.

While Uzbekistan’s use of forced labour is well-documented, the Cotton Campaign says many apparel companies it notified were surprised at the Turkmen government’s use of forced labour. But it claims both H&M and Inditex have acknowledged that they purchased apparel from Turkmenbashy, a manufacturer majority owned by the Turkmen government that uses forced labour cotton.

“As a first step to avoid forced labour cotton from Turkmenistan from tainting their brands, global apparel companies should to join together and publicly call on the Turkmen government to end forced labour in its cotton sector,” the activists urge.

Another four issues they believe should be tracked in order to monitor the use of forced labour in cotton production, are:

1: Will the Uzbek and Turkmen governments uphold laws prohibiting forced labour?

After agreeing with the ILO in April 2014 to eradicate forced labour, the Cotton Campaign says more adults than ever were forcibly mobilised in Uzbekistan to harvest cotton last autumn, apparently to compensate for fewer children being sent to the fields. Forced labour was also used to weed cotton fields in the first half of 2015, although last month the Uzbek government reportedly committed to “promote voluntary recruitment and to prevent mobilisation of teachers and healthcare workers for the cotton harvest.” Local groups and the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights will be monitoring the situation to see whether anyone is forced to grow or harvest cotton this year.

The Turkmen government, meanwhile, has never responded to concerns about its use of forced labour to produce cotton, the Cotton Campaign says. In 2014, the government “forcibly mobilised” tens of thousands of citizens to work in the cotton fields, and it has signalled no change to its cotton production system in 2015. Again, the government’s practices will be monitored throughout the cotton harvest this year.

2: Will the Uzbek and Turkmen governments allow independent human rights organisations, activists and journalists to investigate and report on conditions in the cotton production sector without fear of reprisals?

3: Will the World Bank suspend its loans to the Uzbek government if there is forced labour in its agriculture and education project areas?

To avoid suspension, the World Bank is being urged to press the government to reform its policies that drive forced labour, including increasing cotton procurement prices, eliminating penalties against farmers who do not fulfil production quotas, and reporting cotton income in national budgets.

4: Will Daewoo International and other multinational companies operating in Uzbekistan stop contributing to and benefitting from forced labour?

Daewoo International, the largest processor of cotton in Uzbekistan, has admitted it uses forced labour cotton in its operations in Uzbekistan. Other companies including GM Uzbekistan, Teliasonera and Telenor have either sponsored the harvest or sent workers to take part. Campaigners want companies operating in Uzbekistan to sign the Commitment Against Forced Labor in Uzbekistan, establish an independent human rights monitoring and public reporting programme of the company’s operations and supply chain in Uzbekistan, and divest from Uzbekistan if involvement in the forced labour system persists as a requirement to operate in the country.