As the country with the smallest population in Central Asia, Turkmenistan has rarely been in the spotlight on the global stage. This changed today, when the U.S. State Department downgraded Turkmenistan for using forced labor in its cotton sector in the annual Trafficking in Persons report. (RSN has written extensively about forced labor in the cotton sector of Uzbekistan, and over the last two years has worked in an increasing capacity with the Cotton Campaign to end forced labor in Turkmenistan, as well. Our partner Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN) has documented the Turkmen government’s use of systematic forced labor throughout its cotton sector since the 2013 harvest.
ATN’s reporting, conducted with a network of informants throughout Turkmenistan, details the state-orchestrated, forced mobilization of farmers and public and private sector workers. The mobilization is a remnant of the former Soviet Republic’s centralized command economy. Since the collapse of the USSR, the authoritarian Turkmen government has exacerbated the issue, orchestrating a system in which citizens are exploited to meet yearly cotton quotas. In ATN’s report, public-sector workers detailed being threatened by their superiors with dismissal, docked pay, or forced to pay a fee if they refused to participate in the harvest. This state system of forced labor violates the fundamental human and labor rights of tens of thousands of Turkmen citizens each year.
After placing Turkmenistan on the Tier 2 Watch List for the fourth consecutive year in 2015, the State Department was forced to either upgrade or downgrade the country’s ranking in 2016. To our satisfaction, the State Department downgraded Turkmenistan from the Tier 2 Watch List to Tier 3. This downgrade allows the country to be sanctioned under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act for Tier 3 countries, which provides more incentive for the Turkmen government to take definitive action to end its use of forced labor in the cotton sector.
Independently determined but aligned with the State Department’s position, earlier this month the ILO’s Committee on the Application of Standards urged the government of Turkmenistan to“take effective measures in law and in practice to ensure that no one, including farmers and public and private sector workers, is forced to work for the state sponsored cotton harvest.”The committee also stated that the Turkmen government should prosecute officials who participate in the forced mobilization of workers; seek the ILO’s assistance in applying international labor standards; and allow workers, employers, and civil society organizations to monitor the harvests without fear of repercussion.
We were also pleased to see that the State Department downgraded Turkmenistan’s neighbor Uzbekistan from the Tier 2 Watch List to Tier 3 as well. In Tier 3, similar to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan can now be subject to sanctions, which places more international pressure on the government to combat forced labor in its cotton sector. The decision is also in line with the ILO’s recommendations to the Uzbek government, to take measures that ensure the complete elimination of the use of forced labor and achieve concrete results.
The State Department’s downgrade, in combination with the ILO’s recommendations, sends a strong message to global apparel and home goods brands that they should have rigorous processes to identify and eliminate Turkmen and Uzbek cotton from their value chains. Only by aligning trade practices with company commitments to fundamental labor conventions will we be able to end forced labor in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan’s cotton sectors. If the international community builds on the pressure of the downgrades to Tier 3, the citizens of these Central Asian countries may have reason to hope for light at the end of the tunnel.