Major American retailers continue to hawk products made with cotton from Turkmenistan despite a long-standing U.S. Customs and Border Protection ban over findings of state-enforced slave labor in the Central Asian nation.
A search on the websites of Kmart and Overstock.com on Monday turned up hand and bath towels described as containing “100% cotton imported from Turkmenistan.” Several listings on eBay tout “Turkmen linens.”
“We’ve called attention in op-eds and direct advocacy engagement to the problem of e-commerce sites failing to do the due diligence on their suppliers and selling products that are otherwise banned from import into the U.S. for sale to U.S. consumers,” Allison Gill, forced labor program director at the Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum, said at a webinar organized by human-rights coalition the Cotton Campaign on Monday.
She noted that writing to the offending retailers might get the products temporarily taken down, only for them to rear their heads again sometime later.
“This points to the need for stronger enforcement of the existing import prohibition as well as strengthened due diligence requirements and accountability measures including penalties on companies that knowingly and willfully violate laws against forced labor,” Gill said.
Ebay said it requires sellers and buyers to abide by the laws and regulations in all countries where they do business under its international trading policy. “We have removed the listings identified due to import restrictions on these products,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. Kmart and Overstock.com did not respond to requests for comment.
When the United States slapped a Withhold Release Order on both Turkmen cotton and products produced in whole or in part with Turkmen cotton in 2018, it drove more than 140 multinational companies, including Adidas, Gap Inc. and H&M, to sign a public commitment swearing off the commodity as long as it was produced by forced labor.
But conditions in the former Soviet state, which is the world’s seventh largest producer and seventh largest exporter of cotton, have only deteriorated, according to a report on the 2021 cotton harvest published Monday by Turkmen.news and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, both members of the Cotton Campaign.
The conscription of public-sector employees from schools, factories and hospitals, as well as members of vulnerable groups such as migrants, addicts and sex workers, is now “widespread and systematic.” Child labor is also rampant, with some minors as young as 10 picking cotton to earn money for their families or toiling as replacement workers for their parents. Coerced pickers during last year’s harvest received the equivalent of $1.50 per day, even if they were civil servants used to earning three times as much, the report found.
The Turkmen government decides how much cotton to plant, how much to harvest and when to start harvesting, said Farid Tukhbatullin, chairperson of Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights. Because there are no independent institutions or mechanisms to shield people from reprisal, anyone who attempts to speak out risks harassment and the loss of employment.
“There’s no autonomy in this area,” he said. Farmers, too, are frequently intimidated and threatened with the removal of their land if they don’t hit certain production quotas. Many of them have to shell out for seed, equipment and fertilizer, as well as provide pickers with food and accommodation, with no help from the government, Tukhbatullin added.
The only way for brands to make sure that their supply chains are free of forced-labor cotton from Turkmenistan is to “fully eliminate it from the supply chain,” said Raluca Dumitrescu, coordinator at the Cotton Campaign.
“It’s really crucial that stakeholders understand that the forced labor system in Turkmenistan is government-controlled from the top down,” she said. “And this means that it is impossible for brands to prevent or remediate forced labor in the harvest of cotton, since we’re talking about systematic forced labor.”
Complicating matters is the fact that Turkmen cotton isn’t always signposted as such. Gill said that although Turkmenistan is often seen as “somewhat remote or removed” from global systems, it remains linked to the world through the multinational trade of cotton and cotton products such as yarn, fabric and finished goods. These goods, she said, make their way into global supply chains and into the hands of consumers in the United Kingdom, the European Union and the United States.
“If you know a little bit about cotton supply chains, you know that cotton can be difficult to trace because it can be amalgamated at the spinning level or at the mill level with cotton from other countries,” Gill said. “There are only now emerging systems to trace cotton goods throughout the supply chain—and, until recently, many brands did not look very far below Tier 1 if at all below Tier 1 in terms of understanding the origins of their cotton or their cotton inputs.”
There are certain hot spots, however. Turkey, the EU’s third-largest textile exporter, imports the largest volume and dollar value of Turkmen cotton products “by far” and is the primary manufacturer of garments and textiles using Turkmen cotton. Suppliers in China, Pakistan and Portugal also produce a significant proportion of textiles using Turkmen cotton, yarn and fabric, the report found. Another area of concern is the transshipment of goods. Tackling any cotton “laundering,” it said, requires transparency in trade and shipping data, as well as coordination between countries with enforcing forced-labor provisions.
To weed modern slavery from cotton supply chains, import control mechanisms must be paired with human rights due-diligence obligations on companies to map their supply chains and cut ties with suppliers using Turkmen cotton, the Cotton Campaign said. Success is possible, it said. The strategy worked to rehabilitate Uzbekistan after a decade-plus-long shunning and it could do the same for Turkmenistan.
“No legislative instrument on its own will solve this issue,” said Rocio Domingo Ramos, business and human rights policy and research officer at Anti-Slavery International, another Cotton Campaign member. “There’s no silver bullet here. What we need is a smart mix of different measures tackling the root causes of this system.”