Teachers and doctors in three regions of Turkmenistan have been freed from the obligation to go and pick cotton or pay money to hire workers in their stead. This may be connected with the upcoming visits to Turkmenistan of a monitoring mission of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and representatives of the U.S. Department of Labor. It is to be hoped that the exemption of this category of public sector workers from cotton picking is not a temporary measure because of the important visitors, but the first step on the road towards eradicating forced labor in Turkmenistan
Teachers in Dashoguz and Mary have been relieved from cotton picking. At least, that is what the administration told them. They did not even collect money from the teachers to hire workers.
At the start of the cotton harvest season in Turkmenabat, schoolteachers, kindergarten employees, and healthcare professionals were as usual divided into three shifts to go in turn to pick cotton or give money to hire pickers. At the start of September some did give money, 30 manats ($1.5) a day, but were told subsequently that, “No cotton visits yet. Wait.” The cotton harvest is usually in full swing at this time of year with people being sent en masse to the fields.
Meanwhile, local observers in Mary noticed that state road transport enterprises had been compelled to provide vehicles for the cotton harvest (but not people). Employees of technical state agencies are still being taken to the fields though. Maybe the exemption is only for teachers, kindergarten staff and doctors.
This year the cotton is ripening late. In Mary region some 20 per cent of bolls have opened, while 50 per cent are still closed, and 30 per cent are just buds.
Nevertheless, this is the situation at present: public sector workers in at least three regional centers have unexpectedly been released from servitude, although for decades at this time of year they have been going in large numbers to pick cotton. Maybe the Turkmen authorities have finally listened to the criticism of human rights defenders and the international community. According to modern-day norms, being made to do work unrelated to your profession on pain of dismissal is a form of forced labor.
The explanation might be much simpler of course. At present Turkmenistan is awaiting the arrival of a monitoring mission from the International Labor Organization. The representatives of the ILO are expected to travel across the country, meet public sector workers, and talk to farmers. Officials of the U.S. Department of Labor are also due to visit the country. Perhaps the authorities do not want the visitors to have even the theoretical possibility of ending up in the “wrong field” and seeing knowledge workers engaged in tasks beyond the scope of their professional responsibilities. As before, Turkmen officials claim that there is no forced labor in the country’s cotton harvest and that machine harvesters do almost all the harvesting.