Turkmenistan’s cotton industry remains blighted by forced labour and corruption

To eliminate all cotton made with state-imposed forced labour in Turkmenistan from global supply chains, stronger enforcement of existing laws is needed.

A new report from independent Turkmen rights groups documents widespread, systematic forced labour, underpinned by endemic corruption, in Turkmenistan’s annual cotton harvest.

Cotton is Turkmenistan’s biggest export after gas and oil, with the value of exports – mostly to Turkey – averaging around 300 million US dollars per year over the past decade.

The report provides first-hand evidence of forced labour in the 2022 cotton harvest in Turkmenistan and calls for comprehensive reforms to end forced labor and create a broader enabling environment for labour rights.

Turkmenistan is one of the most closed and repressive countries in the world, with a system of arbitrary, corrupt governance that controls nearly every aspect of public life. During the annual harvest, the Turkmen government forces tens of thousands of public sector workers, including employees of schools and hospitals, to pick cotton or pay for replacement pickers under threat of penalty, such as loss of employment.

The government of Turkmenistan also has total control of the cotton production system, which relies on the exploitation of farmers. Every year, the government imposes cotton production quotas on farmers and enforces them with the threat of penalty, including fines and loss of land. Regional administrators tasked with quota enforcement mobilise civil servants to the harvest to demonstrate their commitment to the government’s cotton plan. 

“State-imposed forced labour in the cotton harvest and exploitation of farmers are not an anomaly in Turkmenistan,” says Farid Tukhbatullin, chairperson of Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights. “These practices are an integral part of a corrupt command system of agricultural production, including production of wheat and silk cocoons. The Turkmen government must introduce structural reforms to address forced labour and exploitation beyond the cotton sector.”

The report also highlights the risk of forced labour Turkmen cotton entering global garment and textile supply chains, in violation of import ban legislation and obligations on companies not to use goods made with forced labour.

Suppliers in third countries, in particular Turkey, but also Pakistan and Italy, use cotton, yarn, and fabric originating in Turkmenistan and sell goods to major global brands. This means that brands and retailers face the risk of forced-labour Turkmen cotton entering their cotton supply chains at all stages of production.

“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,” says Raluca Dumitrescu, coordinator of the Cotton Campaign, a global coalition dedicated to ending forced labor and promoting decent work for Central Asian cotton workers.

“Creating a level playing field will signal to the government of Turkmenistan that the use of forced labour is unacceptable.”

“Change is long-overdue. Every year, the Turkmen government uses coercion and exploitation of farmers and public sector employees to produce and harvest cotton,” adds Ruslan Myatiev, director of Turkmen.News, which monitors forced labour in Turkmenistan’s cotton fields.

“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.”

Publication of the report comes as representatives from governments and worker and employer representatives around the world are expected to testify against forced labour in Turkmenistan during an International Labour Organisation (ILO) review of Turkmenistan’s compliance with the ILO Convention on the Abolition of Forced Labour.

The ILO last reviewed Turkmenistan’s compliance with the ILO Convention in 2021, when it urged the government to eliminate forced labour in the cotton sector and cooperate with the ILO and social partners to ensure compliance with the convention.

While the government has since allowed a high-level ILO mission to visit the country, it continues to publicly deny the use of forced labor in the harvest—most recently during its review by the UN Human Rights Committee in March 2023—and to harass and attack anyone who dares to speak out about human and labor rights abuses.

“The ILO has a key role to play in ending state-imposed forced labour in Turkmenistan and the review by the Committee on the Application of Standards of Turkmenistan’s forced labor record is timely,” says Allison Gill, Forced Labour Programme director at Global Labour Justice-International Labour Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF), which hosts the Cotton Campaign.

“However, any durable solution to ending forced labour must include an emphasis on other fundamental labour rights, especially freedom of association, assembly, and collective bargaining.”

Uzbek success

In March 2022, Cotton Campaign ended its call for a global boycott of cotton from neighbouring Uzbekistan.

In 2021, for the first time in eleven consecutive years of monitoring forced child and adult labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields, the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights found no systemic or systematic, government-imposed forced labour during the cotton harvest.

However, findings of independent civil society monitoring of the 2022 cotton harvest published in an Uzbek Forum for Human Rights’ report show serious human rights risks remain in the Uzbek cotton industry and that further reforms are needed to increase farmers’ autonomy and create an enabling environment for labour rights.

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