Forced cotton labour
According to the US Department of Labour, cotton is one of the goods most commonly produced using forced labour. Forced labour exists in nine countries producing 65% of the world’s cotton – Benin, Burkina Faso, China, India, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Europe is the biggest single destination for Uzbek cotton.
While forced labour in cotton production remains endemic in many countries, nowhere is it more organised than in Uzbekistan. Farmers are ordered to grow cotton and every year at harvest time the repressive government forcibly mobilises over one million citizens, including teachers and doctors, to leave their regular jobs for a few weeks and go to the fields to pick cotton. The profits from the cotton production go to the country’s powerful elite.
Update: In March 2022 it was announced that the long-running boycott of Uzbek cotton was being lifted. For the first time, in the 2021 cotton harvest, Uzbek Forum for Human Rights found no government-sponsored forced labour. This came five years after the Uzbek Government first entered into negotiations with campaigners to work towards ending the boycott.
Forced cotton labour in Turkmenistan
We’ve reported on the forced labour in Uzbek cotton extensively before, but not so much the issues in the Turkmenistan cotton industry.
Every year in Turkmenistan thousands of public sector employees including teachers, doctors, hospital personnel, bank employees, and gas and electricity agency staff are forced to help farmers pick cotton under threat of dismissal.
In September and October, over 50% of teachers are estimated to be sent to pick cotton. Businesses are also forced to contribute labour, under threat of being closed. To fulfil quotas, parents often have to recruit their children’s help, despite national and international laws against child labour.
According to the Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN), the entire Turkmen cotton production system is “tainted with forced labour of children and adults” based on the identification of seven indicators of forced labour. These are:
- Coercive recruitment
- Forced overtime
- Limited freedom of movement and communication
- Degrading living conditions
- Pre-existence of a dependency relationship on employer
- No freedom to resign in accordance with legal requirements
- Withholding of wages.
In a country marginally better than North Korea for press freedom, reporting on the issue is dangerous. On 6 September 2019, journalist Gaspar Matalaev was freed from prison after serving a three-year sentence for reporting on the cotton harvests.
Avoiding cotton from Turkmenistan
Although cotton is Turkmenistan’s largest export, it exports less than 1% of the world’s raw cotton. However, there may be a higher chance of it being in European textiles: Turkey is the main investor in Turkmenistan textile production facilities, and the third largest textile supplier to the EU. The Turkish company Calik Holding has subsidiaries that own textile production facilities in Turkmenistan.
A March 2019 report by Anti-Slavery International stated that brands listed on Calik Holding subsidiary websites include Topshop, Zara, H&M and River Island.
Ethical Consumer has long marked companies down under our Workers’ Rights category if they do not have a policy against cotton sourcing from Uzbekistan. We now require a boycott of Turkmen cotton too.
Patricia Jurewicz of the Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN) stated,
“Things are starting to change in Uzbekistan after many years of engagement. Turkmenistan is a lot like Uzbekistan as it has an authoritarian government that controls the entire cotton industry. We can’t feel confident that any cotton produced in Turkmenistan is produced without any forced labour in it.”
She added “We are hopeful that changes are taking place […] I really hope it’s not going to take as long to encourage the Turkmen government”.
Cotton sourced from the Xinjiang region in China
The End Uyghur Forced Labour (EUFL) says that there is evidence of the Chinese government using “forced labour as a means of social control” throughout the cotton-producing Uyghur region of Xinjiang.
Brands are being urged to cut ties with the Xinjiang Uyghur Region of China as a result. Find out more in our feature on Uyghur Muslims.