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Apparel Brands Call for End to Forced Labor in Turkmenistan Cotton Fields

A dozen apparel companies and global investors opposed to Turkmenistan’s use of state-sponsored forced labor in its cotton sector have expressed their disapproval as Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow attends the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Brands and retailers—including 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 Corp.—have signed the Responsible Sourcing Network’s (RSN) Turkmen Cotton Pledge, committing to not source cotton from Turkmenistan until forced labor in the sector has been eliminated.

The companies said they will maintain their stance, per the pledge, “Until the elimination of this practice is independently verified by the International Labor Organization, as well as determined by the Cotton Campaign.”

Turkmenistan is the among the top 10 producers and exporters of cotton in the world, according to the World Atlas. The U.S. imported only a negligible  amount of cotton from the country, roughly $1.06 million worth in the year through July, according to the U.S. Commerce Department’s Office of Textiles and Apparel. 

RSN, which is dedicated to ending human rights abuses and forced labor associated with the raw materials, said the country’s cotton industry is completely controlled by the government. Turkmenistan compels farmers to grow cotton and determines the quotas farmers must fulfill. In order to meet these quotas, RSN alleges, tens of thousands of citizens are forced to harvest cotton each fall.

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The government owns all of the land in Turkmenistan, which enables it to force farmers to grow annual quotas of cotton or lose their land, according to RSN. Farmers are often significantly underpaid for their crops, and the state has a monopoly on all purchasing and sales.

What’s more, all public service workers, including teachers, doctors, nurses and government staff, must pick cotton to meet their own harvesting quotas, under threat of dismissal, shortened work hours and/or salary deductions. If they don’t want to pick, they must pay a daily fee. Businesses also are forced to contribute labor under the threat of being shuttered.

Children as young as elementary school age also are sent into the fields, sometimes replacing their parents who must keep their jobs. Children miss school to complete the strenuous work in harsh conditions, and if students are not working in the fields, their teachers are. The cotton harvest is prioritized over everything, even the education and well-being of future generations.

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 to the United States, RSN noted.

U.S. Customs law prohibits the importation of goods mined, produced or manufactured, wholly or in part, in any foreign country by forced labor, including convict labor, forced child labor and indentured labor. If any imports are suspected to be made under such conditions, CBP can refuse the goods entry, seize them and even follow up with a criminal investigation of the importer.

To help curb the problem, U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued a “Withhold Release Order” in May stating the importation of “all Turkmenistan cotton or products produced in whole or in part with Turkmenistan cotton” could be stopped from entering the United States over concerns that the products were being produced with forced labor. The order required the detention of such goods at all U.S. ports of entry.

RSN said it hopes the pressure will lead to change in Turkmenistan as it did in Uzbekistan. The Uzbek Cotton Pledge, created seven years ago by RSN to unite the international community in refusing to source cotton harvested with slave labor, eventually led to a commitment by the government of Uzbekistan to change its “antiquated and abusive system,” said Patricia Jurewicz, vice president and founder of RSN. The changes include an end to the use of child labor, steps to stop overall forced labor and increased awareness of fundamental labor rights in the cotton fields.

According to an International Labor Organization report to the World Bank published in February, the systematic use of child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest has ended, and the ILO reported it found concrete measures being taken to stop the use of forced labor. 

RSN said 42 institutional investors, including banks, insurance companies and investment advisors, have signed a statement urging global home goods and apparel brands and retailers to take action addressing exposure to grave human rights abuses in the cotton fields of Turkmenistan.

In addition to apparel companies signing the pledge, investors are asking them to support RSN’s initiative YESS: Yarn Ethically & Sustainably Sourced, a due diligence verification system for yarn spinners that purchase raw cotton, to prevent and avoid cotton harvested with forced labor. RSN is a project of As You Sow, which aims to promote environmental and social corporate responsibility through shareholder advocacy, coalition building and innovative legal strategies.