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.
Gaspar Matalaev, a labor and human rights activist who monitored and reported on the systematic use of forced adult labor and child labor in Turkmenistan’s cotton fields, was released today after serving three years in prison on spurious charges stemming from his reporting.
Matalaev was arrested in October 2016, two days after Turkmen.news published his extensive report on state-sponsored forced labor.
He reportedly was tortured and held incommunicado while in prison, according to the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of organizations, including the Solidarity Center, working to end state-organized forced labor in Central Asian cotton fields.
The global labor and human rights communities are hailing the release, but are united in insisting Matalaev should never have been imprisoned.
“Today is not a victory for justice. Matalaev should never have spent the past three years behind bars,” according to the Cotton Campaign. “We will continue to support activists who expose the injustice of forced labor and modern slavery with the support of our global community.”
The international community rallied in support of Matalaev, with more than 100,000 people signing an online petition to the Turkmen government demanding his immediate release. Activists also picketed the Turkmen Embassy in Washington, D.C. In May 2019, the International Labor Rights Forum awarded Gaspar Matalaev the Defender of Labor Rights Award for making public the Turkmenistan government’s ongoing use of forced labor during the annual cotton harvest.
Some 70 companies, including Levi Strauss & Co and H&M, have signed the Turkmen Cotton Pledge, refusing to supply cotton from Turkmenistan as long as it is produced in a system that relies on forced labor. Additionally, 84 investors of these companies with assets of nearly $860 billion have signed a related investor statement that notes the importance of preventing the presence of Turkmen cotton in companies’ supply chains until the government ends its coercive system.
Turkmenistan: One of the World’s Worst Human Trafficking Records
Turkmenistan has one of the worst human trafficking records in the world, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report. In 2018, the report found that even as the Turkmen government “continued to engage in large-scale mobilizations of its adult citizens for forced labor in the annual cotton harvest and in public works projects, no officials were held accountable for their role or direct complicity in trafficking crimes.”
Human trafficking within countries of citizenship is especially prevalent in cases of labor trafficking, such as in Turkmenistan.
The Turkmen government “tightly controls all aspects of public life and systematically denies freedoms of association, expression and religion,” according to Human Rights Watch.
In April 2018, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said Matalaev was “subjected to arbitrary deprivation of liberty based on trumped-up charges” and his detention was “a direct result of his exercise of the freedom of expression and opinion.” The working group recommended Turkmen officials release Matalaev and compensate him, but the government ignored all calls for his early release.
Belarus, Burundi, Mauritania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan and Turkmenistan are among the 22 countries with the worst human trafficking records in 2018, according to the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report.
The report notes that for the first time, a majority of victims in 2018 were trafficked within their countries of citizenship, especially in cases of labor trafficking.
In Turkmenistan, where the government “continued to engage in large-scale mobilizations of its adult citizens for forced labor in the annual cotton harvest and in public works projects, no officials were held accountable for their role or direct complicity in trafficking crimes,” according to the report.
Further, the report states that “the continued imprisonment and abuse of an independent observer of the cotton harvest and state surveillance practices dissuaded monitoring of the harvest during the reporting period.”
Gaspar Matalaev, a labor rights activist with Turkmen.news, who monitored and reported on the systematic use of forced adult labor and child labor in Turkmenistan, remains falsely imprisoned since 2016, days after Turkmen.news published his extensive report on the country’s forced labor practices.
He has been tortured with electric shocks and held incommunicado, according to the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of organizations, including the Solidarity Center, working to end forced labor in the cotton fields. (Send a message to the Turkmenistan government to immediately release Matalaev.)
Uzbekistan, another country with vast, state-sponsored forced labor in the cotton fields, remained on the watch list, a ranking indicating more progress by the government than in Turkmenistan. Although the Uzbekistan government has made strides in ending forced labor, public-sector employees continue to be coerced into a variety of construction and municipal service work, as documented in a recent report by the Solidarity Center and the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF). In addition, at least 175,000 people were forced to harvest cotton in Uzbekistan’s 2018 harvest.
Migrant Workers Vulnerable to Exploitation, Trafficking
The Trafficking in Persons report also details how labor recruiters often act as human traffickers, taking advantage of migrant workers who lack information on the hiring process, are unfamiliar with legal protections and options for recourse, and often face language barriers.
“Certain unscrupulous recruitment practices known to facilitate human trafficking include worker-paid recruitment fees, misrepresentation of contract terms, contract switching, and destruction or confiscation of identity documents,” the report states.
The report continues: “Low-wage migrant laborers are extremely vulnerable to and at high risk of exploitative practices such as unsafe working conditions, unfair hiring practices, and debt bondage—a form of human trafficking.”
Each year, the State Department ranks countries in one of four tiers, basing its assessment primarily on the extent of governments’ efforts to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking outlined in the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). Countries at the bottom, Tier 3, fail to show they are making any effort to end human trafficking.
The State Department has issued the report annually since 2001, following passage in Congress of the TVPA in 2000.
Truckloads of children were sent to pick cotton during the Turkmenistan fall harvest, according to a new report by the Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN), an independent media and human rights organization. The children, along with tens of thousands of civil servants, including pregnant teachers, were forced to pick cotton for weeks in a government-led mass mobilization of forced labor that began August 15 and lasted through December.
In a secret order, “the local education department even sent a memo to the schools in [Ruhabat and Baharly] districts to organize the mobilization of children for the harvest during the fall break,” according to the report. ATN sources also reported a massive use of forced and child labor in several districts of Dashoguz, Lebap and Mary provinces.
“The cotton harvest feels like serfdom because you go to work in a rich man’s land”—public utility worker. Credit: ATN
A teacher told ATN that pregnant teachers showed their principal a doctor’s certificate to be excused from field work, but the principal forced them to go—and ramped up their cotton collection quota from 110 pounds a day to 132 pounds. Another source reports officials at institutions, like local schools, financially benefit from the use of forced labor.
A public utility service worker in Dashoguz province told ATN that if workers refused to pick cotton, they will lose their job. “The boss will happily hire someone else for your job and even get a bribe for it. Unemployment is so high in Dashoguz that bosses won’t have hard time finding your replacement.”
Although most of the cotton harvest takes place on government-run land, scores of cotton pickers also say they were forced to work in either private fields or lands leased long-term by wealthy landlords or high government officials. “The cotton harvest feels like serfdom because you go to work in a rich man’s land,” says the public utility worker.
Human Rights Abuses Rampant
The Turkmen government “tightly controls all aspects of public life and systematically denies freedoms of association, expression and religion,” according to Human Rights Watch. Gaspar Matalaev, an activist who provided photographs documenting child labor during Turkmenistan’s cotton harvest, was arrested in 2016 and is serving a three-year prison sentence on trumped-up fraud charges. He has reportedly been subjected to torture by electric current to force him to confess to false charges of minor fraud.
Turkmenistan remained in the lowest ranking in the U.S. State Department’s 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report, meaning the government does not comply with minimum U.S. Trafficking Victims and Protection Act (TVPA) standards and is not making significant efforts to become compliant.
The Turkmenistan government “continued to use the forced labor of reportedly tens of thousands of its adult citizens in the harvest during the reporting period,” according to the report. “It actively dissuaded monitoring of the harvest by independent observers through harassment, detention, penalization, and, in some cases, physical abuse.”
In neighboring Uzbekistan, where 1 million public employees are forced to pick cotton each fall harvest, children also were forced into the fields this past fall. The government had stopped the practice in recent years following campaigns by international human rights organizations, low rankings in the US Trafficking in Persons Report and threats by the World Bank to curtail funding.
Some 30 global unions, corporations and nonprofit networks are urging the U.S. State Department to ensure its upcoming Global Trafficking in Persons report accurately reflect the serious, ongoing and government-sponsored forced labor in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
“The Uzbek government continues to operate one of the largest state-orchestrated systems of forced labor in the world,” according to letters sent today by the organizations, which include the Solidarity Center, the AFL-CIO, AFT and the Australian Council of Trade Unions. (Read the letters here and here.)
In Turkmenistan, as in Uzbekistan, the government’s “mass mobilization of citizens to harvest cotton degraded public services, especially schools, which sent their teachers to pick cotton,” according to the organizations. “Some officials also forced civil servants to clean and landscape public spaces and to clean the officials’ homes.”
In its 2014 report, the State Department ranked Uzbekistan as “Tier 3,” a designation that means it does not fully comply with the minimum standards set by the U.S. Trafficking Victims and Protection Act (TVPA) and is not making significant efforts to do so. Turkmenistan was ranked on the Tier 2 Watch List, meaning its government does not fully comply with the TVPA standards but is making significant efforts to become compliant.
The organizations are urging the State Department to maintain Uzbekistan’s Tier 3 status and downgrade Turkmenistan to Tier 3. Key to the Tier 3 designation is the extent to which a country serves as origin, transit or destination for severe forms of trafficking and the extent to which officials or government employees are complicit in severe forms of trafficking.
The Trafficking in Persons report “is an important means to shine light on modern-day slavery and to press governments to do more to eradicate it,” the organizations state. Maintaining the Tier 3 ranking not only accurately reflects the reality on the ground, they say, but will help press the governments to take meaningful steps to end forced labor. The letters were sent to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Ambassador Patricia Butenis, acting director of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
A report released this month found that extortion and bribery fueled the forced labor behind Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest in autumn 2014, a coerced mass mobilization that took teachers, health care workers and millions of other employees away from their duties for several weeks.
In Turkmenistan, tens of thousands of teachers, doctors and other public employees were forced, under the threat of dismissal, to spend four months in the cotton fields, according to a 2014 report by Alternative Turkmenistan News. “The working and living conditions of the forced laborers were abysmal, with people often having to sleep in the open air, drink ditch water and bathe in irrigation channels.”
The U.S. Trafficking in Persons report, issued annually for the past 14 years, covers 188 countries and was mandated by the 2000 Trafficking Victims and Protection Act. The act sets standards to eliminate trafficking and creates enforcement measures, such as the withholding or withdrawal of U.S. non-humanitarian and non-trade-related assistance for countries with low rankings.