The New Pledge: Time to End Forced and Child Labour In Turkmenistan

In 2011, STOP THE TRAFFIK asked Australia’s fashion retailers to sign a pledge to stop knowingly buying cotton sourced from Uzbekistan. We also asked the public to stay informed on this issue and be part of the process of support for companies who did so. Countless companies signed the pledge and the positive steps now being taken in Uzbekistan cotton fields are a sign of its might. However, it is important to continue the pressure, and a new battle-line must be drawn, turning to a pledge against the cotton coming from Turkmenistan. 

Uzbekistan is the 5th largest cotton producer in the world.[1] However, it’s cotton harvests have been plagued by vast amounts of forced labour and child labour. The Uzbekistan government sent out civil servants such as teachers and doctors as well as thousands of school children who were forced to pick the cotton during harvest. Back in 2011, to attempt to counter this modern slave like practice, organisations such as Cotton Campaign (of which STOP THE TRAFFIK is a member) and the Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN) decided that a pledge should be signed by large western fashion companies to commit to not knowingly buy cotton from Uzbekistan until the forced and child labour had ceased. Almost 300 brands have since signed the pledge to try change things in Uzbekistan. Since the pledge began in 2011, there have been considerable leaps in progress in the Uzbekistan cotton fields. The Uzbekistan President has spoken to the UN to commit to eradicating forced labour, and the accounts of child labour in the cotton fields, while still existent, have undoubtedly dramatically decreased. These achievements are down to the work and pressure of Australian organisations, businesses and consumers.

Although the work is by no means finished in Uzbekistan, these promising signs give encouragement to begin a new pledge in neighbouring Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan is the 7th largest cotton producer in the world.[2] Like Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan relies on its cotton output for its national economy. Because of this, the Turkmen government forces tens of thousands of citizens to pick cotton each harvest including thousands of school children. The mobilisation leaves institutions hugely understaffed, undermines education and health care.[3] The work is hard, the conditions can be brutal, and saying no is not an option for almost all Turkmenistan citizens. Unlike positive reports from Uzbekistan, in Turkmenistan “there are no signs of progress and the situation in the last harvest even worsened, with our partners Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN) finding masses of children being sent out to the fields again during last year’s harvest.”[4] Ruslan Myatiev, the editor of the ATN told the Cotton Campaign that “State-sponsored forced labour will continue in Turkmenistan as long as international brands continue to support it. 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.”[5] The situation in Turkmenistan is deteriorating. More adults and children are being forced to work the cotton harvest than ever before, reporters who criticise these actions in Turkmenistan are being arrested and detained, some are even tortured.

Two things have become clear, that the pledge campaign has been an integral part of producing positive steps in Uzbekistan, and that the Turkmenistan cotton harvest is in a dire situation with both forced labour and child labour extremely prevalent. STOP THE TRAFFIK is, alongside Cotton Campaign and RSN calling for companies who import cotton to sign a second pledge, this time committing to not knowingly buying cotton sourced from Turkmenistan until the child and forced labour there has ceased. STOP THE TRAFFIK will be writing to all businesses who signed the Uzbekistan pledge asking them to also sign the Turkmenistan pledge. This effort will require great involvement from Australian consumers who have the power to use their dollars to pressure companies not to source from Turkmenistan, and therefore can be a giant part of the process of finally ending forced labour in Turkmenistan.

You can view the pledge here: https://www.sourcingnetwork.org/turkmen-cotton-pledge/

[1] Jeffrey Hays in Facts and Details, Cotton in Uzbekistan: Agriculture, Brezhnev-Era Corruption and Forced Labour, http://factsanddetails.com/central-asia/Uzbekistan/sub8_3f/entry-4741.html, 2016

[2] The Diplomat, Forced Labor Remains Endemic in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, https://thediplomat.com/2016/07/forced-labor-remains-endemic-in-uzbekistan-and-turkmenistan/, 2016

[3] Cotton Campaign, Turkmenistan's Forced Labor Problem, http://www.cottoncampaign.org/turkmenistans-forced-labor-problem.html, 2017

[4] Anti-Slavery, End Uzbek Cotton Crimes, https://www.antislavery.org/take-action/campaigns/end-uzbek-cotton-crimes/, 2016

[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