Turkmen games commence amid season of forced labor Citizens forced to harvest cotton for government as it hosts costly Olympic event
For Immediate Release: September 19, 2017 Turkmen games commence amid season of forced labor Citizens forced to harvest cotton for government as it hosts costly Olympic event
(Washington, DC) -- As Turkmenistan hosts the V Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games (AIMAG), which will take place in the capital of Ashgabat from September 17 to 27, the annual state-orchestrated mobilization of civil servants to pick cotton is in full swing. Every year since the nation’s founding, the government of Turkmenistan has forced citizens to pick cotton for a state-run industry. This year’s harvest began on August 15, while Turkmen activist Gaspar Matalaev is still imprisoned for his reporting on forced labor during last year’s cotton harvest in Turkmenistan.
“Each harvest, the Turkmen government forces tens of thousands of teachers and doctors to pick cotton, pay a bribe or hire a replacement worker, all under threat of punishment, including loss of wages and termination of employment,” said Ruslan Myatiev, editor and founder of Alternative Turkmenistan News. “Officials also force private businesses to contribute funds or people to the harvest under threat of closing the business. They demand written consent from public sector employees that they are driven by patriotic motives and agree to participate in the harvest for the people and the motherland.”
This year’s harvest takes place as about 4,000 athletes from 62 nations descend on Turkmenistan to participate in AIMAG. According to Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, Turkmenistan spent $5 billion on these games, despite the fact that the country is struggling with a debilitating debt burden and 60% unemployment.
A coalition of 30 investment firms, labor organizations, religious groups and human rights organizations wrote to three large AIMAG sponsors last month – Coca-Cola, MasterCard and LG – asking them to use their influence with the government of Turkmenistan to urge it to end state-sponsored forced and child labor in its annual cotton harvest and to encourage the release of Gaspar Matalaev.
“The burden to pay for these games, just like the burden of the cotton harvest, falls on regular people forced to serve an authoritarian government,” said Pat Zerega, Senior Director of Shareholder Advocacy at Mercy Investment Services, which was a signatory to the letter. “Companies operating in Turkmenistan should play a bigger role in safeguarding labor and human rights. Especially since the Turkmen government has never responded to concerns raised by civil society groups, governments and international organizations about its use of forced labor to produce cotton.”
“Global apparel multinationals H&M and Inditex publicly ban the Turkmen cotton because of the ongoing forced and child labor in its cotton production”, said Klara Skrivankova, UK & Europe Programme Manager, Senior Private Sector Advisor at Anti-Slavery International.
The government of Turkmenistan is perpetrating reprisals against journalists and other civil society actors who attempt to document and report on forced labor and other human rights abuses. One of them is Gaspar Matalaev, who has been imprisoned for 10 months on falsified fraud and corruption charges two days after publishing his report on Turkmenistan’s ongoing use of state-sponsored forced labor in its 2016 cotton harvest. International advocacy organizations last week sent a letter to Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov as part of a global petition campaign that has garnered 62,642 signatures from citizens around the world asking he be released.
“Gaspar’s work has helped draw attention to the violations of international and Turkmen laws during the cotton harvest,” said Judy Gearhart, Executive Director of the International Labor Rights Forum. “He was uncovering a crime, not engaging in one. These games are an opportunity for the Turkmen government to foster some goodwill with the international community by releasing Gaspar and allowing him to reunite with his family.”
To address ongoing forced and child labor in the Turkmen cotton harvest, the Turkmen government should enforce national laws that prohibit the use of forced and child labor in alignment with the International Labour Organization conventions it has ratified; allow independent journalists, human rights defenders, and other individuals and organizations to document and report concerns about the use of forced labor without fear of reprisals; abolish mandatory production and labor quotas; and grant farmers autonomous management of agricultural land.
CONTACT: Cotton Campaign Coordinator - c/o International Labor Rights Forum, 1634 I Street NW, Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20006. +1 202-347-4100, cottoncampaigncoordinator [at] gmail.com