The government of Turkmenistan uses a forced labor system of cotton production. Annually the government forces tens of thousands of citizens to pick cotton and farmers to deliver production quotas, all under threat of punishment.
President Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov conveys cotton production orders to regional governors, who face dismissal for failure to fulfill their cotton production plan. Governors assign responsibilities to district and city officials, who in turn deliver orders to the administrators of schools, other public institutions, and businesses.
Through this chain of command, the Turkmen government compels farmers to grow annual quotas of cotton, wheat and rice. Farmers lease land from the government, through state-controlled farmers associations, for 1-5 years. The state owns all land, and state-controlled farmers associations take away land and assign it to other farmers for failure to fulfill state-assigned production quotas or at the associations’ discretion. The state maintains a monopoly on cotton purchasing and sales, sets an artificially low procurement price, and does not disclose cotton income or its use. Farmers also report widespread underpayments for their cotton crops.
To harvest cotton, the Turkmen government forces tens of thousands of citizens to pick cotton each year. Authorities force public sector workers, including teachers, doctors, nurses, and staff of government offices to pick cotton, pay a bribe, or hire a replacement worker, under threat of losing their job. Officials also force businesses to contribute labor, financially or in-kind, under threat of closing the business. The mobilization leaves institutions understaffed, undermining education, health care and municipal services.
Despite national laws prohibiting child labor and a 2008 ban of child labor in the cotton sector, children continue to do the hazardous field work, because the government maintains the cotton production system. Children pick cotton for their parents, who are forced by the government to fulfill individual cotton picking quotas under threat of losing their jobs.
Turkmenistan is the 9th largest producer and 7th largest exporter of cotton in the world, according to the International Cotton Advisory Committee. Forced labor cotton from Turkmenistan enters supply chains of global apparel brands multiple ways. Cotton trading companies report that they purchase cotton throughout Central Asia. The Turkmen government claims that several Western apparel companies purchase from Turkmenbashy Jeans Complex, a joint venture of the Turkmen government and Turkish investors, on the company website: http://www.turkmen-jeans.com/products.php.
By using forced labor, the Turkmen government violates its national laws and the International Labour Organization Conventions prohibiting forced labor. Fear silences most citizens. The Turkmen government is also responsible for hundreds of forced disappearances; denies freedoms of association, movement, expression and religion; and refuses cooperation with United Nations human rights bodies.
The government of Turkmenistan can and must end its use of forced labor by stopping coercion of farmers and citizens for cotton production, eliminating penalties for not participating or fulfilling quotas, raising cotton procurement prices, and respecting farmers’ and farmworkers’ rights to organize and collectively bargain.
 Information herein is based on monitoring reports by Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN), a civil media initiative founded in 2010 to report news from Turkmenistan, where independent media is thoroughly repressed: http://habartm.org/.