The Cotton Campaign reviewed Turkmenistan in March and raised strong concerns about the forced mobilisation of civil servants to pick cotton, in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and urged concrete steps to end this egregious practice.
Ahead of the review, the Cotton Campaign provided its expert review to the Committee on the root causes and mechanisms of the government-controlled forced labour system in Turkmenistan, as well as recommendations for structural reforms. The Human Rights Committee reiterated its earlier call to the government of Turkmenistan, made in 2017, to eliminate forced labour in the cotton sector. It also recommended the government increase labour inspections and establish an effective complaint mechanism for adults and children in forced labour.
“The Committee’s conclusions provide yet further authoritative evidence that the government of Turkmenistan’s practice of forcing public sector employees, on a massive scale, to pick cotton every year violates international law”, said Allison Gill, Forced Labor Program Director at Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF), which hosts the Cotton Campaign.
“The good news is that reform is possible. The government should start by ending reprisals against independent monitors who document labour conditions in the cotton fields. Allowing independent reporting is a crucial step to ending forced labour.”
During the review, the government of Turkmenistan denied that forced labour occurs in the country, asserting that the increased use of harvest technology means that mass mobilisation of human resources is “not needed”.
Whilst it is true there has been an increase in the mechanization of sowing, independent sources report that hand-picking remains prevalent, especially for the first part of the harvest, when cotton is plentiful and at its most valuable.
“Evidence collected by independent labour monitors—including video and audio recordings, testimonies of pickers, and official government documents—shows that every year, cotton is harvested with state-imposed forced labour, even though Turkmen officials publicly deny it” said Ruslan Myatiev, director of Turkmen News, a member of the Cotton Campaign.
“The government has the power to change this system and a high-level acknowledgement of the problem will help demonstrate the political will to find solutions, instead of harassing and attacking anyone who dares to speak out.”
140 global brands and retailers have committed to not use Turkmen cotton in their products as long as it is produced with state-imposed forced labor.
“Turkmen cotton is explicitly banned in the US and the import or sale of products made with forced labour are prohibited in increasingly more jurisdictions”, said Raluca Dumitrescu, Coordinator of the Cotton Campaign. ”If Turkmenistan is interested in engagement with global brands, it must first take concrete steps towards meaningful reform.”
In September, Turkmenistan featured on a US Department of Labour list of foreign-made goods made using forced or child labour. Meanwhile, Uzbekistan, was removed.
The Human Rights Committee’s Concluding Observations add to a growing list of concerns about the use of state-imposed forced labour in Turkmen cotton by UN experts across the board. This includes a 2021 ‘Communication’ from the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, and a 2022 ‘Observation’ from the ILO Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations.
The Cotton Campaign urges the government of Turkmenistan to engage constructively and in good faith with the ILO, UN human and labour rights monitors, such as the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, and independent civil society organisations with expertise on state-imposed forced labour.