A new joint report by leading independent Turkmen human rights groups exposes systemic forced labor during the 2020 cotton harvest in Turkmenistan, said the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of organizations including Freedom United.
The report, Review of the Use of Forced Labor in Turkmenistan During the 2020 Cotton Harvest, was released today by Turkmen.news and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, both members of the Cotton Campaign coalition.
The report is based on evidence documented by trained civil society monitors and local sources of information in four of Turkmenistan’s five regions of Turkmenistan — Ahal, Dashoguz, Lebap, and Mary. It brings together the expertise and networks of two of the foremost independent Turkmen human rights groups.
Amsterdam-based Turkmen.news is a long-time partner of the Cotton Campaign and has monitored forced labor in cotton production in Turkmenistan for eight years.
Vienna-based Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) is a leading voice on human rights issues in Turkmenistan and has published first-hand monitoring on a range of rights issues for years on its Chronicles of Turkmenistan website.
“It is past time for Turkmenistan to stop denying forced labor and punishing monitors, reporters, and others who speak the truth,” said Ruslan Myatiev, editor of Turkmen.news. “Civil society has a critical role to play in promoting reforms that will benefit workers and the whole country.”
The 2020 cotton harvest began in late August in all regions of Turkmenistan and lasted through November. Turkmenistan, one of the most closed and repressive countries in the world, uses systematic forced labor to harvest cotton. It has used harassment, arbitrary imprisonment, and torture and ill-treatment against independent monitors and reporters.
Freedom United launched the campaign urging the Turkmen government to free Gaspar Matalaev, a prominent human rights activist who was imprisoned following his reporting on the state-sanctioned system of forced labor during the 2016 cotton harvest.
Despite 100,000+ global supporters taking action to campaign for Gaspar’s freedom, Gaspar’s case being highlighted in both the U.S. Trafficking in Persons report and Human Rights Watch report, the Turkmen authorities ignored all calls to release Gaspar. He was finally freed in September 2019 after having served his full three-year sentence.
The report found that in all the regions monitored, the government forced public sector employees, conscripts, and university, college, and vocational students to pick cotton.
Employees risked dismissal from their jobs if they refused to pick cotton or hire another worker in their place. Students faced disciplinary penalties or expulsion from their institution. Officials also continued the practice of extorting public sector workers to contribute money to pay for workers and expenses related to the cotton harvest, although the frequency and amount of money or work civil servants were required to contribute varied among regions.
“Turkmenistan’s entire cotton production system is corrupt and abusive,” said Farid Tuhbatullin, chairman of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights. “Ending the forced labor system would not only help workers by stopping the most egregious labor abuses, but also help the country’s struggling economy overall.”
The report also found that the forced labor of teachers, doctors, and other public sector employees has a crippling impact on the provision of education, health, and other essential public services.
The extortion of money from these employees by threat under the guise of “voluntary” contributions to subsidize the corrupt and inefficient state production system placed an additional burden on workers struggling amidst the country’s worsening economic crisis, which has included shortages of food staples, rising food prices, and new reports of child labor.
Additionally, Turkmenistan has steadfastly denied the existence of COVID-19 in the country, even as independent monitors have documented dozens of deaths from the disease.
The government has imposed mask mandates and taken other measures while denying the disease, but left people forced to pick cotton unprotected. Public sector employees were sent to the fields on overcrowded buses without masks or appropriate distancing, and cotton fields lacked hygiene facilities.
Cotton and cotton products, including garments and home goods, are the second-largest export for Turkmenistan after petroleum.
Turkmenistan cotton finds its way into U.S. and European markets, in violation of laws that prohibit the sale of goods made with forced labor. The U.S. State Department ranked Turkmenistan Tier 3, the lowest ranking on its annual Trafficking in Persons report.
In addition, cotton from Turkmenistan is on the Labor Department’s list of goods produced with child or forced labor, and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency (CBP) prohibits the import of cotton or cotton products from Turkmenistan.
“Companies have an obligation to exclude products tainted with forced labor from their supply chains. This means they need to be able to trace their supply chains to the raw materials, such as cotton, and verify their suppliers,” said Allison Gill, Forced Labor Program Director at Global Labor Justice – International Labor Rights Forum, which hosts the Cotton Campaign.
The Cotton Campaign called on companies to sign the Turkmen Cotton Pledge, to work to ensure that cotton from Turkmenistan produced with forced labor does not enter their supply chains. Thus far 119 major apparel and home goods brands and industry associations have already signed the pledge.