Turkmenistan is known throughout the world for its immense oil and gas reserves, however, it is not only a “gold mine” that brings the country most of its income. One of the primary export items of Turkmenistan has traditionally been cotton. Cotton is equalized to gold as it is widely used in various industrial branches including textile, food, medical and some other industries.

When in 2018, the US government imposed restrictions on cotton from Turkmenistan, it was the first big word “no” to the dirty tactics of the cotton production that some countries are using. It was an important step towards the complete cessation of one of the dirtiest practices of using forced labour. Despite this, Turkmen cotton is still present in clothes sold by international fashion brands all over the world (Radio Free Europe, 2018). In 2021, The Ethical Trading Initiative urged fashion brands worldwide to stop using cotton from Turkmenistan after the latest review of the cotton industry in the country (Ramos, 2021).

The problem starts from how cotton is produced, traded and woven globally. After it is picked from fields by often underpaid workers, it is cleaned at a cotton gin and sent in bales to the mills. In there, the bales are blended into thread, often mixed from various sources. Before the cotton is woven and reaches textile factories in Bangladesh or Turkey, its origins are fading (Gapper, 2020).

The answer to the question of how does Turkmen cotton get to Europe in the first place lies within the close relationship between Turkmenistan and Turkey, the sixth largest textile supplier in the world. Most companies in Turkmenistan are state-owned or controlled, the system allows for joint ventures with Turkish companies. Some 60,000 Turkish companies operate in Turkmenistan, many of them in the textile industry (Elven, 2019).

Turkmen cotton makes up 14.9 per cent of cotton imports into Turkey. When the cotton gets to Turkey, Turkmen cotton can end up being incorporated in the production of clothes for international fashion brands. In 2020, the European Union imported EUR 14.5 billion worth of textiles and textile products from Turkey (Elven, 2019).

Many Turkish companies present in Turkmenistan commit to international standards. However, there is evidence that decision-makers are not always aware of the nature and extent of forced labour in Turkmen cotton production. Interviews with a small number of senior managers at a leading Turkish company operating in Turkmenistan revealed commonly held beliefs that cotton production is predominantly mechanised and that any manual labour is voluntary in nature (Antislavery.org , 2019).

Status of the cotton in 2020 Turkmenistan

Two independent media, Turkmen News and Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights from Turkmenistan have published a joint report on the status of the cotton industry in Turkmenistan. The report is based on monitoring of five regions of Turkmenistan by their staff.

In all of the monitored regions, during the time of cotton harvest, forced labour was used systematically against public sector employees and students in higher education and colleges. The public sector workers had to even pay a “voluntary contribution” from their salaries “to the successful achievement of the state plan for the cotton harvest” (Turkmen.news & Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, 2021). The teachers in Turkmenabat were obliged to contribute money twice a week and to go to the fields themselves every other Sunday or send someone instead of themselves. In other regions, the rules were a little bit different. During the eight-day fall break, the teachers in all schools in the Dashoguz region had to either pick cotton or pay for a replacement worker to go to the fields (Turkmen.news & Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, 2021).

The forced labour is a gross violation of international human rights and also of Turkmenistan’s labour law. The way in which the government has used its public sector employees in the fields disrupts the educational and medical institutions as well as many more sectors of the economy.

The forced money donations to the government for the cotton harvest have a negative impact on the well-being of the Turkmen households. Especially the families in the lowest income citizen groups, given the constant rise in food prices, have been affected. Children also worked in the cotton fields, often as workers hired by their teachers, which prevents them from receiving full education (Radio Azaltik, 2020). “The Turkmen government consistently denies the use of forced labour in the country during the cotton harvest despite abundant evidence to the contrary,” says Ruslan Myatiev, Turkmen News editor and human rights defender (Butler, 2021).

Although there is officially no coronavirus in Turkmenistan, tough restrictions have been introduced in the country. The school holidays have been extended, retail, food and service outlets have been closed, and people have been fined for not wearing masks on the street. People are reminded in the media, schools and organisations about social distancing, the importance of hand hygiene, and other preventive measures against respiratory diseases (Turkmen.news & Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, 2021). These rules, however, do not apply to cotton pickers. Public sector workers were taken to work in the cotton fields in overcrowded buses without masks or basic hygiene (The Chronicle of Turkmenistan, 2020).

The Turkmen government in 2020 paid farmers some USD 61 per metric ton of top-quality cotton, compared to the international market price of USD 830 per ton (Ford, 2021).

The report further gives a wide range of examples of how the system of growing cotton in Turkmenistan is ineffective including the pursuit of fictional numbers, almost no transparency, corruption of officials and most of all, lack of opportunity for the farmers to stand up for their rights.

The cotton harvest plan by the government is based on a set of unrealistic targets to be reached (Turkmen.news & Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, 2021). The state tells the farmers how much cotton to produce each year and the farmers only have two choices: cotton or wheat (Ford, 2021). In general, the actual harvest is often 50% less than the published figures. Due to this, the officials in the field are looking for ways to fill in this gap. The report mentions the case of the Turkmengala town where every enterprise, including schools and hospitals, was told to purchase 2.5 tons of cotton and take it to a cotton reception point in order to improve the harvest figures (Turkmen.news & Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, 2021).

The payment system for those involved in the cotton industry works by “top-up” cash payments, as an addition to official payments by cheque at every stage of the growing process. The farmers say that paying a top-up is giving a bribe to the providers of seeds, fertilisers, irrigation water and pest and disease control agents. There is no way around this as without fertiliser the cotton plants will be stunned and the other fruiting elements will fall off and without control agents, the cotton pests will devour the crop (Turkmen.news & Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, 2021).

The farmers are completely at the mercy of the government officials at the cotton reception points, to which they have to bring their cotton. Officials at these points often mark down the real weight of the cotton. If the farmer refused, the operator threatened to write a laboratory report showing high levels of impurities and humidity in the raw cotton. The officials at the reception points sell the withheld cotton to tenant farmers who had a poor harvest, or they give them a certificate saying that they handed in more cotton than they actually did (Turkmen.news & Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, 2021).

Experts think it is not realistic to harvest the quantity of cotton shown in the tenant farmers agreements: “It does not work because of the salinity of the soil, the lack of water and fertilisers, the weather, poor quality seeds and organisational failings. The administrative-command system of management justify over from Soviet times, and the lack of stimulus hold back the development of agriculture in the country. The agricultural producers have become serfs, if not slaves” (Turkmen.news & Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, 2021).

As a result, the tenant farmers lost the will to work, and many of them are contemplating giving up their plots of land and going and working abroad as soon as the borders are open again (Turkmen.news & Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, 2021).

One way how to avoid cotton from countries like Turkmenistan is to pay attention to what are we actually buying. Just to look at the tag and see necessary information. Nowadays there is a huge shift from “as cheap as it gets” to responsible sourcing of the product. Authenticity, traceability and transparency appeal to today’s engaged consumers, while forced labour does not. Many will pay more for production qualities in their clothes as with the organic food. An example of a brand that honestly boasts the origin of the cotton is Supima. Their cotton is known for its long fibres and soft texture as it is grown on 500 farms in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas in the USA free from illegal practices.

Author: Pavel Matusák


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