Children, Pregnant Teachers Forced to Pick Turkmenistan's Cotton

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Children along with thousands of civil servants have been forced to pick cotton in Turkmenistan as part of a state-sponsored forced labor scheme. A new report from the Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN), an independent media and human rights organization, documented cases of forced child labor and pregnant school teachers being forced to pick cotton or risk being fired.

Solidarity Center released this statement:

In a secret order, “the local education department even sent a memo to the schools in [Ruhabat and Baharly] districts to organize the mobilization of children for the harvest during the fall break,” according to the report. ATN sources also reported a massive use of forced and child labor in several districts of Dashoguz, Lebap and Mary provinces.

A teacher told ATN that pregnant teachers showed their principal a doctor’s certificate to be excused from field work, but the principal forced them to go—and ramped up their cotton collection quota from 110 pounds a day to 132 pounds. Another source reports officials at institutions, like local schools, financially benefit from the use of forced labor.

A public utility service worker in Dashoguz province told ATN that if workers refused to pick cotton, they will lose their job. “The boss will happily hire someone else for your job and even get a bribe for it. Unemployment is so high in Dashoguz that bosses won’t have hard time finding your replacement.”

The majority of cotton harvesting took place on government land, but those interviewed said they were also taken to private fields and lands leased by wealthy landlords and high-ranking government officials.

Turkmenistan has strongly denied the presence of forced labor in the cotton harvest and has taken extreme measures to silence activists. Gaspar Matalaev, an activist who provided photographs documenting child labor during the cotton harvest, was arrested in 2016 and is serving a three-year sentence on trumped-up charges of fraud.

Turkmenistan remains in the lowest tier of countries in the 2017 US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons report, meaning “the government does not comply with minimum U.S. Trafficking Victims and Protection Act (TVPA) standards and is not making significant efforts to become compliant.”

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