Protesters March on United Nations for Free Speech and an End to Forced Labour

Protest rallies in the streets of America have become an image we have gotten used to in the last year, but one this week in New York has not received the same amount of public attention as many others in the United States. On October 4th, thousands of protesters gathered outside the United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York to demand the end of state sponsored forced labour in Turkmenistan’s cotton industry. The demonstrators presented a petition signed by 84,000 people from across the world to urge the Turkmen government to immediately release Gaspar Matalaev.[1]

Gaspar Matalaev is a relative of the editor and founder of Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN), one of the few independent monitors documenting forced labour. On October 4, 2016, just two days after his report on state-orchestrated forced and child labour in the Turkmenistan harvest, Matalaev was arrested in the middle of the night by plain clothed officers. An arrest warrant was not presented and the subsequent trial did not meet international standards.[2] Mr Matalaev was sentenced to 3 years imprisonment. During his detention, Mr Matalaev has reportedly been tortured by electric shock and held incommunicado.[3]                    

Turkmenistan is the 7th largest exporter of cotton in the world, being an integral part to the country’s economy.[4] Every harvest, workers from both the private and public sectors numbering in their tens of thousands, are forced to pick the cotton or pay for a replacement workers. This takes place under the threat of punishment, such as loss of wage, loss of job and withholding of emergency services. The government treats refusal to contribute to the national harvest as “contempt of the homeland”.[5] Every year, thousands of stories come from Turkmenistan of the long, hard work in the cotton fields under constant watch by government guards. Ruslyan Myatiev, editor of the ATN stated, “The Turkmen government reaps huge profits off this trade at the expense of Turkmen children and adults, who are forced to harvest cotton each year at considerable risk.”[6] 

Recent announcements of a ban on black cars and women driving give a glimpse into one of the most oppressive and authoritarian-governed countries in the world. Turkmenistan remains completely closed to international scrutiny and subsequently the country’s government has never engaged with the international community or civil society over concerns about forced labour.[7]

For over 7 years, Australian campaigners and citizens have been at the forefront of this issue in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan, but not attention has begun to switch to Turkmenistan. Organisations such as Cotton Campaign, of which STOP THE TRAFFIK is a member, has been at the head of the push for western companies to use their stance as large consumers to ensure that human-rights and slavery abuses like this come to an end in Turkmenistan. Clearly, the work from all Australians who feel passionately about this issue must continue.  

As long as the demand remains for Turkmenistan’s cotton, abuses on human rights activists and journalist’s freedom will continue. Ruslan Myatiev went on to say, “State-sponsored forced labour will continue in Turkmenistan as long as international brands continue to support it. We strongly encourage all apparel and textile brands to sign the pledge to not knowingly source Turkmen cotton until the Government of Turkmenistan ends the practice of forced labor in its cotton sector.”[8] Consumers in Australia have the power to impact this by:

  • Buying companies who sign the pledge,

  • Remaining informed on Turkmenistan’s cotton industry and the Western retailers who buy from them,

  • When you go shopping, ask if there is Turkmenistan cotton in their supply chain. If they don’t know the answer, ask them to ask their manager.

  • Writing to businesses to urge them to pledge against Turkmenistan cotton.

[1] Business and Human Rights Resourcing Centre, ‘Activists protesting at UN call on Turkmenistan to end forced labor in cotton fields & release imprisoned human rights defender’, https://www.business-humanrights.org/en/activists-protesting-at-un-call-on-turkmenistan-to-end-forced-labor-in-cotton-fields-release-imprisoned-human-rights-defender, (2018)

[2] International Labor Rights Forum, ‘Free Gaspar Matalaev: Imprisoned for documenting forced and child labor’, https://laborrights.org/node/30062, (2018)

[3] Joanna Ewart-James, ‘Gaspar Matalaev: serving time for reporting on forced labour in Turkmenistan’s cotton fields’, The Independent UK, (2018)

[4] Freedom United, ‘Cotton Campaign: Halt Cotton Goods from Turkmenistan’ https://www.freedomunited.org/news/cotton-campaign-halt-cotton-goods-from-turkmenistan/, (2018)

[5] Cotton Campaign, Protest at United Nations Calls on Turkmenistan to End Forced Labor in Cotton Industry’, http://www.cottoncampaign.org/protest-at-un-to-end-forced-labor-in-turkmenistan.html, (2018)

[6] Cotton Campaign (2018)

[7] Joanna Ewart-James (2018)

[8] Cotton Campaign (2018)