Cotton bound for global markets from Turkmenistan—the ninth largest producer and seventh largest exporter of the world’s cotton—was again harvested with forced labor last year, finds a new report by the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights and turkmen.news. Students and public-sector employees—including teachers—were systematically forced into the cotton fields in four of Turkmenistan’s five regions during the 2020 fall harvesting season, documents the report.
“The Turkmen government consistently denies the use of forced labor in the country during the cotton harvest despite abundant evidence to the contrary,” says Ruslan Myatiev, turkmen.news editor and human rights defender.
The report documents the forced participation—under threat of dismissal from their jobs or expulsion from their educational institutions—of public-sector employees and high school, vocational and college students. Report findings are based on evidence documented by trained civil society monitors working for the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights in four of the five regions of Turkmenistan: Ahal, Dashoguz, Lebap and Mary. Women are especially vulnerable to forced labor in the country because they comprise most of the public-sector workforce traditionally involved in the cotton harvest, says the report.
Public-sector workers, including teachers, were expected to provide so-called voluntary contributions from their salaries or in personal time worked in the fields, or a replacement worker—often their students—for “successful achievement of the state plan for the cotton harvest,” states “Review of the Use of Forced Labor in Turkmenistan during the 2020 Cotton Harvest.” For example, during the country’s eight-day fall break, starting October 22, all teachers in the schools in the Dashoguz region had to pick cotton or pay for a replacement worker to go to the fields.
Forced labor of teachers, doctors and other public-sector employees is crippling health and education public services, says the report, while extortion of money from such employees is exacerbating citizens’ suffering during the country’s worsening economic crisis in the context of COVID-19-related food shortages and rising prices.
“Together with other members of the Cotton Campaign, the Solidarity Center demands respect for international conventions against forced labor. Nobody should be coerced into working the fields, and those who monitor working conditions in the cotton fields must be free to do so,” says Abby McGill, Solidarity Center senior program officer for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
In Turkmenistan, a Central Asian republic on the northern border of Iran and Afghanistan, cotton cultivation is fully controlled by the state, retaining elements of the planned economy from the Soviet era. It is one of the most closed and repressive states on the planet, currently ranked below North Korea in world freedom scores. The government commits egregious human rights abuses with impunity and there is a total absence of free media. Cotton-sector independent monitors and reporters face ongoing harassment, arbitrary imprisonment, and torture and ill-treatment.
The U.S. State Department ranked Turkmenistan Tier 3, the lowest ranking on its annual Trafficking in Persons report. Cotton from Turkmenistan is on the Labor Department’s list of goods produced with child or forced labor, and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency (CBP) prohibits the import of cotton or cotton products from Turkmenistan.
The Cotton Campaign is a global coalition of human rights, labor, responsible investor and business organizations dedicated to eradicating child and forced labor in cotton production in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The Cotton Campaign’s Turkmen Cotton Pledge, committing signatories to preventing cotton from Turkmenistan produced with forced labor from entering their supply chains, has been signed by 119 major apparel and home goods brands and industry associations.
Uzbek human rights defender Elena Urlaeva was released from a psychiatric hospital in Tashkent yesterday where she was imprisoned for 23 days with neither her consent nor a court order to forcibly treat her, according to the Cotton Campaign. Urlaeva’s release follows an international campaign spearheaded by the Cotton Campaign, a global coalition of labor, human rights, investor and business organizations that includes the Solidarity Center.
Urlaeva was detained and beaten by Uzbekistan police the day before she was due to meet with representatives from the International Labor Organization (ILO), International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the World Bank to discuss state-led forced labor in Uzbekistan.
Urlaeva Repeatedly Detained for Documenting Forced Labor
Urlaeva has documented forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields for the past 16 years, and has repeatedly been arrested, beaten and imprisoned by Uzbek officials. Last year, she was imprisoned in a psychiatric hospital for more than a month and arrested five times as she spoke with people forced by the government to labor in the country’s cotton fields. She was physically assaulted during the subsequent interrogation. In 2015, Urlaeva was arrested, beaten and forced to injest sedatives, and police confiscated her camera, notebook and information sheet on ILO labor rights conventions.
“A number of times I was put into a psychiatry ward,” says Urlaeva in a video released last November. “They did their best to show to the international community that human rights activists are crazy and they should not be listened to.”
Child Labor Growing in Uzbekistan Cotton Fields
Each fall harvest, some 1 million teachers, medical professionals and others are forced to toil in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields. If they do not participate, they must pay for a replacement worker or lose their jobs. Children also are forced to pick cotton, according to a preliminarily report by the Uzbek-German Forum, reversing a move away from use of child labor in 2013 and 2014.
Uzbekistan, which gets an estimated $1 billion per year in revenue from cotton sales, faced high penalties from the World Bank and other financial institutions for not ending the practice. Rather than change, the government seeks to cover it up.
Urlaeva has been credited with helping significantly reduce child labor in cotton fields, and this year was among human rights defenders in Uzbekistan to receive the International Labor Rights Forum 2016 Labor Rights Defenders Award.
In Uzbekistan, empty classrooms and children working in cotton fields during the annual fall cotton harvest contributed to the country’s ranking as among those with the worst forms of child labor in the world, according to a report released yesterday by the U.S. Department of Labor.
The annual “Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor” placed Uzbekistan among 12 other countries at the bottom of the report’s rankings and one of three, along with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Eritrea, that received the assessment as a result of government complicity in forced child labor.
The report assesses efforts by more than 140 countries to reduce the worst forms of child labor and indicates whether countries have made significant, moderate, minimal or no advancement over the previous year. Thirteen countries were cited as making significant advancement, compared with 10 countries in last year’s report. Among them: Brazil, Ecuador, El Salvador, South Africa and Tunisia.
Through a detailed country-by-country description, the report includes data on children’s work and education, national laws and regulations regarding child labor and other key information. Globally, 10 percent of the world’s children—168 million children, of whom 85 million labor in hazardous work—toil in factories, mines and farms, unable to attend school.
Regionally, the report cites sub-Saharan Africa, home to 30 percent of the world’s child laborers, as the area with the largest number of children working in hazardous conditions. An estimated 59 million children ages 5–17 are engaged in child labor in sub-Saharan Africa, or 21.4 percent of all children in the region.
Elsewhere, 77.8 million children ages 5–17 are engaged in child labor in the Asia and Pacific region, some 9.3 percent of all children in the region. In Latin America and the Caribbean, 12.5 million children work, accounting for 8 percent of all children in the region. In the Middle East and North Africa, 9.2 million children—8 percent of all children in the region—are engaged in child labor.
A list of goods produced by child or forced labor also is included as part of the report, which this year is dedicated to retiring Rep. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). Harkin, a champion of worker rights, has long led the fight to end child labor globally, and spearheaded legislation in 2000 that mandated compilation of the annual “Findings of the Worst Forms of Child Labor.”