State-imposed forced labour in Turkmenistan: Now is the time for action

This World Cotton Day, our Business and Human Rights Policy and Research Officer, Rocio Domingo Ramos, and our International Advocacy Officer, Cara Priestley, provide an overview of the cotton harvest in Turkmenistan – Central Asia. In this blog, they explain why it is the time for action to end state-imposed forced labour in the Turkmen cotton harvest.

Each year in Turkmenistan, the Government forces tens of thousands of public and private sector workers to pick cotton. During the cotton season of August-December people must either pick cotton, pay a bribe, or hire a replacement worker to pick the cotton on their behalf instead.  

During each harvest, a network of independent monitors on the ground in Turkmenistan document the annual cotton harvest and the human rights abuses that occur. Conducting their work in secret due to extreme restrictions on freedom, they do so at great personal risk.  

State-imposed forced labour in 2022 harvest 

The findings from the 2022 harvest, released in June this year, showed that forced labour of public sector employees to pick cotton continued to be widespread and systematic in all regions monitored in 2022, with one worker forced to pick cotton reporting that there has never been such a mass mobilization of people for cotton before. People in the fields faced difficult and sometimes abusive or dangerous working and living conditions, and child labour continued to be used. 

And what is happening in 2023 so far?

However, as the 2023 harvest begins there are some potentially promising signs. Following years of no progress, in mid-September, state institutions removed the obligation of some teachers and doctors in three regions of Turkmenistan to pick cotton or pay money to hire workers to replace them. While this is encouraging, it is too soon to know if these instances reflect genuine policy change. Other state employees in these regions, as well as countless others across Turkmenistan, continue to be subjected to forced labour. 

This is a critical time to put pressure on the Turkmen Government to introduce meaningful and systemic reforms, including recognising the existence of the current system of forced labour, addressing root causes of forced labour, and enabling wider human and labour rights. 

The Role of the EU and upcoming opportunities 

Cotton from Turkmenistan weaves its way through global supply chains and taint the items sold on our highstreets.

Meanwhile, Turkmenistan remains one of the largest cotton producers in the world. While some of the picked cotton is sent for processing in other countries, the remainder is processed in spinning mills and textile factories. Because of weak laws in consumer countries, including the UK and EU, and inaction by companies, this cotton weaves its way through supply chains and into the clothes we wear. Due to the lack of traceability and transparency of supply chains, many people won’t know that the cotton they buy and wear has been made with forced labour.  

We have been calling on the EU and several governments around the world to introduce an effective law that would ban the imports of goods made with forced labour into their markets. Such a mechanism is essential to address contexts where forced labour is imposed by the state, in the production of products sold across the world, including products containing Turkmen cotton. 

Upcoming opportunities 

November will be a key month in the EU. Turkmen officials will be travelling to Brussels to meet with policymakers for the 2023 EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights dialogue. This will be an important diplomatic opportunity to raise the existing human rights concerns in the country and put pressure on the Turkmen Government to end this forced labour practice, starting by recognising the issue in the first place.  

Also in November, the EU Parliament is set to vote on the text of a law which should ban the imports of any goods tainted with forced labour. For this law to effectively address state-imposed forced labour it must include a so-called ‘rebuttable presumption’. This means that enforcement authorities should be able to introduce bans on specific product groups from specified countries or regions (such as all cotton from Turkmenistan), and companies would have to prove their goods weren’t made with this forced labour to import them.  

Developments at the United Nations and the International Labour Organisation  

And it’s not only at the EU level where we are seeing developments. Earlier this year, the Government of Turkmenistan was reviewed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Committee on the Application of Standards (CAS) on its forced labour record at the International Labour Conference in Geneva. Being shortlisted for review by the CAS – made up of government, employer, and worker representatives – highlights to the government that it is being monitored and its actions considered egregious. This can add to pressure on the government to make reforms. The review produced strong conclusions, with the CAS deploring the Government’s “failure to make any meaningful progress on the matter since the Committee discussed the case in 2016 and 2021″ and issuing seven key recommendations.

Scrutiny at this level, including a 2021 CAS recommendation for the Turkmen Government “to accept a high-level mission of the ILO”, has led to the development of a Roadmap for Cooperation between the Government of Turkmenistan and the ILO. As part of this Roadmap, the ILO is due to conduct monitoring of the 2023 cotton harvest. The Turkmenistan-ILO engagement is an important step towards ending the practice of forced labour, however, there are some significant limitations. Crucially, the Roadmap does not address key rights including freedom of association and freedom of expression, which will be key to ensuring long-term and sustainable reform. Against this backdrop, the Government continues to publicly deny that forced labour exists in the cotton sector, including just this year during reviews by the UN Human Rights Committee and the ILO CAS.

In November, Turkmenistan will be reviewed by fellow UN Member States in Geneva, under the Universal Periodic Review mechanism. We played an important part in Geneva in August, calling for governments to make recommendations to Turkmenistan towards ending its forced labour system. We’ll be keeping a watching eye on this process and holding the Government to account on the recommendations it receives and commits to implementing.

What is next?

Overall, the upcoming months are critical in our work to end forced labour in cotton in Turkmenistan. Watch our new video to learn about state-imposed forced labour in Turkmenistan, and share on social media.  

You can also follow our partner, Turkmen.News on social media to see the latest updates from this years harvest. Together, we will see an end to the state-imposed slavery of thousands.  

Find out our work to end State-imposed forced labour here.