ILO to Review Turkmenistan for Compliance with International Law Prohibiting Forced Labor
Geneva/Washington, D.C., June 12, 2023—Governments, companies, and workers’ organizations should take action to press Turkmenistan to end forced labor and protect fundamental labor rights, said the Cotton Campaign, a global coalition dedicated to ending forced labor and promoting decent work for Central Asian cotton workers. The call comes after a new report from independent Turkmen rights groups
, released today, documents widespread, systematic forced labor, underpinned by endemic corruption, in Turkmenistan’s annual cotton harvest. The report was released on the same day as the ILO Committee on the Application of Standards (CAS) examines Turkmenistan’s compliance with its obligation to end forced labor.
“Change is long-overdue. Every year, the Turkmen government uses coercion and exploitation of farmers and public sector employees to produce and harvest cotton,” said Ruslan Myatiev, director of Turkmen.News, which monitors forced labor in Turkmenistan’s cotton fields. “It is high time for the government to acknowledge this problem and allow labor rights defenders to monitor and report on working conditions without the threat of reprisal.”
The report provides first-hand evidence of forced labor in the 2022 cotton harvest in Turkmenistan and calls for comprehensive reforms to end forced labor and create a broader enabling environment for labor rights. The launch comes as representatives from governments and worker and employer representatives around the world are expected to testify against forced labor in Turkmenistan during the ILO CAS review of Turkmenistan’s compliance with ILO Convention on the Abolition of Forced Labour (No. 105). The government of Turkmenistan should cease its denials of state-organized forced labor and instead demonstrate the political will to end this system, the Cotton Campaign said.
The ILO CAS reviewed Turkmenistan’s compliance with the ILO Convention 105 most recently in 2021, when it urged the government to eliminate forced labor in the cotton sector and cooperate with the ILO and social partners to ensure compliance with the Convention. While the government has since allowed a high-level ILO mission to visit the country, it continues to publicly deny the use of forced labor in the harvest—most recently during its review by the UN Human Rights Committee in March 2023—and to harass and attack anyone who dares to speak out about human and labor rights abuses.
“The ILO has a key role to play in ending state-imposed forced labor in Turkmenistan and the review by the Committee on the Application of Standards of Turkmenistan’s forced labor record is timely,” said Allison Gill, Forced Labor Program Director at Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF), which hosts the Cotton Campaign. “However, any durable solution to ending forced labor must include an emphasis on other fundamental labor rights, especially freedom of association, assembly, and collective bargaining.”
Turkmenistan is one of the most closed and repressive countries in the world, with a system of arbitrary, corrupt governance that controls nearly every aspect of public life. During the annual harvest, the Turkmen government forces tens of thousands of public sector workers, including employees of schools and hospitals, to pick cotton or pay for replacement pickers under threat of penalty, such as loss of employment .
The government of Turkmenistan also has total control of the cotton production system, which relies on the exploitation of farmers. Every year, the government imposes cotton production quotas on farmers and enforces them with the threat of penalty, including fines and loss of land. Regional administrators tasked with quota enforcement mobilize civil servants to the harvest to demonstrate their commitment to the government’s cotton plan.
“State-imposed forced labor in the cotton harvest and exploitation of farmers are not an anomaly in Turkmenistan,” said Farid Tukhbatullin, Chairperson of Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights. “These practices are an integral part of a corrupt command system of agricultural production, including production of wheat and silk cocoons. The Turkmen government must introduce structural reforms to address forced labor and exploitation beyond the cotton sector.”
The report also highlights the risk of forced labor Turkmen cotton entering global garment and textile supply chains, in violation of import ban legislation and obligations on companies not to use goods made with forced labor. Suppliers in third countries, in particular Turkey, but also Pakistan and Italy, use cotton, yarn, and fabric originating in Turkmenistan and sell goods to major global brands. This means that brands and retailers face the risk of forced-labor Turkmen cotton entering their cotton supply chains at all stages of production.
“To eliminate all cotton made with state-imposed forced labor in Turkmenistan from global supply chains, we need stronger enforcement of existing laws governing human rights due diligence, supply chains, and imports, and the introduction of similar legislation across all jurisdictions,” said Raluca Dumitrescu, Coordinator of the Cotton Campaign. “Creating a level playing field will signal to the government of Turkmenistan that the use of forced labor is unacceptable.”
With only two months left until the 2023 cotton harvest, the government of Turkmenistan should take urgent steps to prevent the use of state-imposed forced labor in the harvest. The Cotton Campaign urges the government to engage constructively and in good faith with the ILO, UN human and labor rights monitors, such as the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, and independent civil society organizations with expertise on state-imposed forced labor.