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Cotton from Turkmenistan Requires ‘Meaningful Reform’

A wide-ranging coalition that includes the American Apparel & Footwear Association, the Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum and Human Rights Watch urged the government of Turkmenistan Tuesday to step up its efforts to eliminate state-imposed forced labor in the country’s cotton sector, in line with recommendations from the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

The Cotton Campaign, which conducted a recent review of the Turkmen cotton sector, said it remains concerned about the forced mobilization of civil servants, most of them women, to harvest the fiber under threat of penalties such as loss of wages, salary cuts and termination of employment. In a report provided to the UN body ahead of its 137th session, which ended last week, the organization noted that the government’s annual rounding up of citizens to pick cotton, as well as its acts of retaliation against whistle-blowers and critics, are clear violations of the international covenant on civil and political rights.

Echoing calls from the Human Rights Committee earlier this month, the Cotton Campaign asked the government of Turkmenistan to take “urgent action” to enforce national laws prohibiting the use of forced and child labor, publicly instruct government officials “at all levels,” establish complaint mechanisms for workers to report instances of forced labor, and allow independent monitors, journalists and other human rights defenders to freely document and report concerns about the use of forced labor.

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“The committee’s conclusions provide yet further authoritative evidence that the government of Turkmenistan’s practice of forcing public sector employees, on a massive scale, to pick cotton every year violates international law,” said Allison Gill, forced labor program director at the Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum, which hosts the Cotton Campaign, the group behind the recently ended boycott of cotton from Uzbekistan.

“The good news is that reform is possible,” Gill said. “The government should start by ending reprisals against independent monitors who document labor conditions in the cotton fields. Allowing independent reporting is a crucial step to ending forced labor.”

Turkmen officials have denied that forced labor occurs in the country. During the UN review, delegates said that the country doesn’t have a policy to compel anyone into mandatory labor during the cotton harvest or any other crop. Because “cutting-edge” technology is used during the harvest, the mass mobilization of human resources is “not necessary.”

Independent sources claim, however, that hand-picking remains prevalent, especially for the first part of the harvest, when cotton is at its most abundant—and most valuable, the Cotton Campaign said.

“Evidence collected by independent labor monitors—including video and audio recordings, testimonies of pickers, and official government documents—shows that every year, cotton is harvested with state-imposed forced labor, even though Turkmen officials publicly deny it,” said Ruslan Myatiev, director of Turkmen News, a member of the Cotton Campaign. “The government has the power to change this system and a high-level acknowledgment of the problem will help demonstrate the political will to find solutions, instead of harassing and attacking anyone who dares to speak out.”

The Cotton Campaign said that the Turkmen delegation, when speaking to the UN, engaged in “greenwashing” by namedropping companies like Gap and Ikea, which it said were involved in a 2016 audit of the country’s harvest. But Ikea dropped Turkmen cotton the following year, citing the country’s lack of progress on forced and bonded labor. In 2018, Gap joined 140 other brands and retailers in committing to shun cotton from Turkmenistan until it’s no longer produced using state-imposed forced labor as “independently verified by the International Labor Organization, as well as determined by the Cotton Campaign.”

The import and sale of products made with Turkmen cotton, meanwhile, is verboten in the United States, although several companies appear to be skirting the ban. Forced labor legislation in the European Union and elsewhere could further shrink available markets for the fiber. It’s a lesson Uzbekistan learned the hard way: As the number of brands and retailers swore off the country’s cotton increased, exports of the fiber plummeted from 2.5 million bales a year to 700,000—a 70 percent drop-off—according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Turkmen cotton is explicitly banned in the U.S. and the import or sale of products made with forced labor are prohibited in increasingly more jurisdictions,” said Raluca Dumitrescu, coordinator at the Cotton Campaign. ”If Turkmenistan is interested in engagement with global brands, it must first take concrete steps towards meaningful reform.”