Every year, tens of thousands of people from Turkmenistan are forced into picking cotton by the government. According to a report by Anti-Slavery, during the cotton harvest, workers from both the public and private sectors are made to fulfil quotas by picking cotton in what was described as “hazardous and unsanitary conditions”. It revealed that doctors, dentists, teachers, students, and military personnel are some of those obliged to abandon their normal duties to be transported to the cotton fields.
Anti-Slavery International’s partner Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN) estimated that during the 2016 cotton harvest around 49,000 teachers – in a country with a population of less than 6 million – were working in the cotton fields as part of Turkmenistan’s forced labour program.
Like neighbouring Uzbekistan – one of the world’s largest cotton exporters with a similar state-orchestrated system of forced labour – Turkmenistan’s centrally command economy means that the government controls the production of cotton; the pricing structure for harvested cotton; and the required quotas produced from local regions. Forcing people to work in the cotton fields is the only way to meet the pressures of those quotas. Since there are not enough manual labourers within agriculture to meet demands, the government intervenes by forcing other workers from within the public to travel to the cotton fields under threat of penalty.
Those who have the means, opt to bribe the officials to escape the gruelling work obligation. Others, who are not able to afford to do so, are resigned to the arduous work conditions where they have limited access to drinking water, showers, and toilets.
Unlike Uzbekistan, where efforts to end this state-sponsored system are creating some small steps towards change, this is not necessarily reflected in the same manner in Turkmenistan. This was illustrated by the three-year imprisonment of Gaspar Matalaev – a reporter with Turkmen.news – who was arrested just two days after the publication of his article on the systematic use of forced adult and child labour in Turkmenistan during cotton harvesting. Matalaev was allegedly tortured by electric shock and held incommunicado, before being released this just earlier month after serving his full sentence.
Despite a ban on child labour in 2017 due to poor harvest, one region’s local education department ordered children to be sent to the cotton fields during their scheduled school term break. Witnesses attested seeing truckloads of these young students arriving for duty and being sent off to the fields. Early indications suggest that this year’s harvest is, again, likely to be below par once again which would make quotas difficult to meet.
Joanna Ewart-James, Executive Director of Freedom United, the world’s largest community for ending human trafficking and modern slavery, explained, “The reduction in the use of forced labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry in recent years and the Roadmap of Reforms to end Systematic Forced Labour in Uzbekistan developed by the Cotton Campaign coalition shows that it is possible to implement a better system.”
“However alongside a clear commitment from the government towards an aspiration of an end to reliance on forced labour, structural reforms must be enacted, and civil society must be empowered to ensure transparency. This must all be backed up with accountability across every aspect of the reform process. “
James also believed that most people are unaware that they might be inadvertently supporting this system every time they go shopping for clothes, and that it is often difficult to detect. “Because the labelling system typically displays the final country of manufacture and not the country of origin of the raw product, it is not easy to avoid cotton from Turkmenistan, which is sold to countries with garment industries where the cotton is used in retail products,” she said.
“However, there are facilities in Turkmenistan that produce manufactured goods. Towels bearing ‘Made in Turkmenistan’ labels were for sale on the websites of Amazon, Wal-Mart, and eBay in the US at the end of 2018 despite a ban on the import of cotton from Uzbekistan by the US Customs and Border Protection in May 2018. More recently, T-shirts bearing ‘Made in Turkmenistan’ labels were found being sold in Bulgaria at an Austrian superstore.”
The only current strategy against this dilemma is to ask the retailer questions about the origin of the cotton in the goods and if they have signed up to the Cotton Pledge Against Forced Labour.
In 2018, the US banned the import of cotton from Turkmenistan and 70 companies have now pledged to not knowingly source cotton from Turkmenistan because of the systematic use of forced labour and questionable slavery implications in its production. It is hoped that both these mechanisms will support other efforts to call on the government of Turkmenistan to take action that will bring an end to this system.