Industry heavyweights including Adidas, Gap Inc, H&M, Marks & Spencer, Nike, and VF Corporation are calling for an end to forced labour in the cotton fields of Turkmenistan.

The call comes as Turkmen President, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, attends the UN General Assembly for the first time since 2015 with apparel companies and global investors expressing their disapproval of the use of state-sponsored forced labour in Turkmenistan’s cotton sector and call for change.

Twelve brands and retailers have already signed the Responsible Sourcing Network’s (RSN) Turkmen Cotton Pledge, which commits companies to not source cotton from Turkmenistan until forced labour in its cotton sector has been eliminated. These companies include: Adidas; Columbia Sportswear Company; Designworks Clothing Company; Gap Inc; H&M Group; M&S; Nike Inc; Rowlinson Knitwear Limited; Royal Bermuda; Sears Holdings; Varner Retail; and VF Corporation.

Its release follows the first iteration of the Uzbek Cotton Pledge in 2011, which asked brands to sign and commit to not sourcing cotton produced with forced child labour for the manufacturing of any of their products. Today more than 280 brands and retailers have signed the pledge.

The purpose of the pledge was multifaceted. It improved signatory brands’ reputations, aided stakeholder communication, proved management of risks, and increased transparency with consumers. And most importantly, it showed the government of Uzbekistan that its practices would not be tolerated by Western brands, closing markets to cotton lint from Uzbekistan.  

Unfortunately, RNS says, Uzbekistan is not alone.

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“Turkmenistan’s government mobilises tens of thousands of citizens each year to work in the cotton fields,” it says. “Authorities force public sector workers, including teachers, doctors, and nurses to pick cotton, pay a bribe, or hire a replacement worker, under threat of losing their job.”

This year RSN created the Turkmen Cotton Pledge with a similar commitment to the Uzbek Cotton Pledge. It provides a platform for brands’ collaboration against a common goal: eradicating forced labour from the cotton fields of Turkmenistan.

Turkmenistan is the seventh largest producer and seventh largest exporter of cotton in the world, according to the RSN, which explains the Turkmen cotton industry is completely controlled by the government.

“The government compels farmers to grow cotton and determines quotas farmers must fulfill. In order to meet these quotas, tens of thousands of citizens are forced to harvest cotton each fall,” it says.

Turkmenistan exports the majority of its raw cotton to Turkey, Pakistan, India, and China, where the cotton eventually makes its way into many apparel products and home goods that are shipped around the world, including the US.

In May 2018, the US Customs and Border Protection agency issued a “Withhold Release Order” stating that the importation of “all Turkmenistan cotton or products produced in whole or in part with Turkmenistan cotton” could be stopped from entering the US.

However, RNS says US companies are now at risk of the protection agency stopping their products at the border if they do not take preventative measures to avoid sourcing cotton from Turkmenistan, where the entire cotton production system is “tainted with forced labour of children and adults”.

To date, 42 institutional investors have signed a statement urging global home goods and apparel brands and retailers to take action to address exposure to grave human rights abuses in the cotton fields of Turkmenistan.

“Seven years ago RSN created the Uzbek Cotton Pledge. Due in part to the international community refusing to source cotton harvested with slave labour, we are starting to see a commitment by the government of Uzbekistan to change its antiquated and abusive system,” said Patricia Jurewicz, vice president and founder of RSN.

In addition to apparel companies signing the pledge, investors are asking them to support RSN’s initiative YESS: Yarn Ethically & Sustainably Sourced, which is a due diligence verification system for yarn spinners—those that purchase raw cotton—to prevent and avoid cotton harvested with forced labour.