In response to a new report documenting widespread forced labour during Turkmenistan’s cotton harvest, the Cotton Campaign, a global coalition dedicated to ending forced labour, is calling on governments, companies, and workers’ organisations to act and pressure Turkmenistan to protect fundamental labour rights.
The comprehensive report presents compelling evidence of forced labour during Turkmenistan’s 2022 cotton harvest and calls for substantial reforms to eradicate this practice.
Global brands said to be at risk
The report also highlights the risk of forced labour-produced Turkmen cotton entering global garment and textile supply chains, thereby violating import ban legislation and companies’ obligations to avoid using goods made with forced labour.
According to the report suppliers in countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, and Italy use cotton, yarn, and fabric originating in Turkmenistan and sell their goods to major global brands. This places brands and retailers at the risk of incorporating cotton produced through forced labour into their supply chains at various production stages.
“To eliminate all cotton made with state-imposed forced labour in Turkmenistan from global supply chains, we need stronger enforcement of existing laws governing human rights due diligence, supply chains, and imports, and the introduction of similar legislation across all jurisdictions,” said Raluca Dumitrescu, coordinator of the Cotton Campaign.
She added: “Creating a level playing field will signal to the government of Turkmenistan that the use of forced labour is unacceptable.”
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Efforts intensify as ILO reviews Turkmenistan’s obligation to eradicate forced labour
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) is reviewing Turkmenistan’s compliance with international law regarding forced labour. The ILO Committee on the Application of Standards (CAS) started conducting an examination of Turkmenistan’s compliance with its obligation to eradicate forced labour on the same day the report was released (12 June).
During the ILO CAS review of Turkmenistan’s compliance with the Convention on the Abolition of Forced Labour (No. 105), representatives from governments, and worker and employer organisations worldwide are expected to testify against forced labour in Turkmenistan.
Forced labour programme director at Global Labour Justice-International Labour Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF), the host organisation of the Cotton Campaign, Allison Gill, stressed ILO’s vital role for putting an end to state-imposed forced labour in Turkmenistan.
Gill said: “Any durable solution to ending forced labour must include an emphasis on other fundamental labour rights, especially freedom of association, assembly, and collective bargaining.”
Turkmenistan’s compliance with ILO Convention 105 was previously reviewed in 2021, during which the government was urged to eliminate forced labour in the cotton sector and collaborate with the ILO and social partners to ensure compliance.
Although the government allowed a high-level ILO mission to visit the country, it continues to publicly deny the existence of forced labour during the harvest and suppressing individuals who speak out against human and labour rights abuses.
Turkmenistan denies forced labour
The Cotton Campaign claims Turkmenistan is one of the world’s most repressive and closed countries, governed by an arbitrary and corrupt system controlling nearly every aspect of public life.
The Cotton Campaign states that during the annual harvest, the Turkmen government coerces tens of thousands of public sector workers, including employees of schools and hospitals, into picking cotton or paying for replacement pickers under the threat of penalties, such as job loss.
Ruslan Myatiev, the director of Turkmen.News, a monitoring organisation focused on forced labour in Turkmenistan, emphasised the urgent need for change.
Myatiev said: “Every year, the Turkmen government coerces and exploits farmers and public sector employees to produce and harvest cotton. It is high time for the government to acknowledge this problem and allow labour rights defenders to monitor and report on working conditions without the threat of reprisal.”
The Cotton Campaign claims the government exercises total control over the cotton production system, which exploits farmers. Each year, it says the government imposes cotton production quotas on farmers and enforces them through penalties, including fines and land confiscation. Regional administrators are responsible for enforcing these quotas to mobilise civil servants to participate in the harvest, showcasing their dedication to the government’s cotton plan.
“State-imposed forced labour in the cotton harvest and exploitation of farmers is not an anomaly in Turkmenistan,” said Farid Tukhbatullin, chairperson of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights.
He continued: “These practices are an integral part of a corrupt command system of agricultural production, including the production of wheat and silk cocoons. The Turkmen government must introduce structural reforms to address forced labour and exploitation beyond the cotton sector.”
With the 2023 cotton harvest only two months away, the Cotton Campaign is urging the government of Turkmenistan to take immediate steps to prevent the use of state-imposed forced labour.
The Cotton Campaign calls on the government 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.