The US has taken a stand against Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan over the use of forced labour in cotton production

The US has taken a stand against Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan over the use of forced labour in cotton production

The US has taken a strong stand against the use of forced labour in cotton production by downgrading Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in its annual anti-trafficking report.

The US State Department downgraded the two countries to Tier 3, the lowest possible ranking, in its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, released yesterday (30 June) – in a move that can lead to economic and military sanctions against a country.

Both governments continue to coercively mobilise citizens to grow and harvest cotton each year in two of the world's largest remaining systems of state-sponsored forced labour, and neither meets "the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking," the report said.

Turkmenistan "continued to mobilise forced labour and did not take action to end its use of forced labour in the cotton harvest during the reporting period," it added.

While "government-compelled forced labour of adults remained endemic in the 2015 cotton harvest," in Uzbekistan.

"The [Uzbek] government continued to demand farmers and local officials fulfil state-assigned cotton production quotas and set insufficiently low prices for cotton and labour to attract voluntary workers, which led to the wide-scale mobilisations of adult labourers and a smaller number of child labourers.

"The government also increased its attempts to conceal possible labour violations in cotton fields by aggressively confronting, harassing, and detaining independent monitors attempting to observe and document the harvest."

Despite this, Uzbekistan "fulfilled its agreement with the World Bank and ILO to allow ILO officials to conduct a labour recruitment survey under the Decent Work Country Program and, separately, monitor the 2015 harvest for risks of child and forced labour in 11 of Uzbekistan's 14 regions. For the fifth consecutive year, Uzbekistan reduced its use of child labour, largely, effectively enforcing its decree prohibiting the participation of children younger than age 18 in the harvest."

Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are the world's fifth and seventh-highest exporters of cotton, respectively.

According to the Cotton Campaign, a global coalition of labour, human rights, investor and business organisations, the Uzbek and Turkmen governments both funnel hundreds of millions of dollars from annual cotton sales, by conservative estimates, into non-transparent, unaccountable funds only accessible to government elite.

The cotton makes its way through opaque global supply chains and eventually winds up in the products of well-known global brands.

"We now urge the US government to use the report rankings to press the Uzbek and Turkmen governments to eliminate state-orchestrated forced labour in their cotton sectors," said Pat Zerega, senior director of shareholder advocacy, Mercy Investment Services.