When you think of cotton and forced labor in Central Asia, you probably think of Uzbekistan. But a new report offers a reminder that Turkmenistan continues to force thousands of citizens into the cotton fields each autumn against their will.
On January 21, Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN) released its assessment of the 2013 cotton harvest (by email): “Tens of thousands” of Turkmen, many of them public sector employees, were forced into the fields during the harvest. "Forced labor is still widely practiced throughout the country," the report – authored in collaboration with the Cotton Campaign, an international advocacy group – said.
The findings support reporting last autumn from Radio Free Europe’s Turkmen Service, which said that teachers were shepherding their students to the cotton fields on an "unprecedented" scale, with girls as young as 10 spotted picking cotton.
ATN describes a feudal system wherein government officials lease cotton plots from the state and then force their underlings to perform the manual labor. Like in neighboring Uzbekistan, the farmers (in this case the officials) then sell their harvest to the government at low prices. The government then sells the raw cotton abroad at market prices, says ATN:
We have information that shows that in the majority of cases, when the regional employees of the social sector are used as cheap laborers, the land is owned not by local farmers, but by high-ranking state or regional officials. These officials rent out land under the names of their wives, children, other family members, etc., however they do absolutely nothing by way of harvesting cotton on their land; many of these officials do not even live on this land or even in the region where the land is leased. [...]
Eleven citizens lost their lives as a result of the forced-labor system this year. The tragic losses included Tursunali Sadikov, a 63-year-old farmer who died of a heart attack after being beaten by a Department of Internal Affairs official, and Amirbek Rakhmatov, a six-year-old schoolboy who accompanied his mother to the cotton fields, napped in a trailer, and suffocated when cotton was loaded on top of him.
“It is the largest number of people who have died in a year, as far as I know,” Matt Fischer-Daly of the Cotton Campaign told the Toronto Star. “There have been tragedies but [I’ve] never seen a year with so many deaths.”
Though there were fewer young children mobilized than in years past, authorities “systematically” coerced high school students, university students, and adults into the fields, the reports says. They are part of an opaque chain of transactions that concludes with authorities buying cotton from farmers at artificially low prices and selling it abroad at a huge markup for hard currency. Researchers found that students were threatened with expulsion if they did not comply and adults told they would be fired if they refused.
Uzbekistan stands to earn $1 billion annually exporting cotton, an industry that has planted the Central Asian country prominently on the inaugural Global Slavery Index published by an Australian watchdog this week.
Citing officials, Uzreport news agency reported on October 17 that at the ninth annual Cotton and Textile Fair in Tashkent on October 16 and 17, Uzbekistan signed contracts to export 680,000 metric tons of cotton fiber and textile products worth $1 billion a year.
In awkward timing, while Uzreport was hailing the cotton contracts as "a solid basis for future long-term, sustainable and mutually beneficial cooperation between Uzbekistan and foreign countries," the Brisbane-based Walk Free Foundation published its inaugural Global Slavery Index.
During the annual cotton harvest, Uzbekistan “is the country with the second highest prevalence of modern slavery (after Mauritania) in the world,” the accompanying report said. The index ranked Uzbekistan 47th globally overall.
Uzbekistan relies on forced labor to pick the cotton, which is then purchased from farmers at artificially low prices and sold abroad for hard currency. The State Department said this year that Tashkent “subjects its citizens to forced labor through implementation of state policy.”
Human rights groups have long urged consumers and apparel manufacturers to boycott cotton from Uzbekistan, the world’s second largest cotton exporter, because it is picked using forced and child labor. But as the number of international – mostly Western – manufacturers pledge to eschew Uzbek fibers, Tashkent is looking east, increasing exports to countries where human rights are less of a concern.
In August, Uzbekistan signed a deal to supply 200,000 metric tons of cotton fiber – about one-third of exports – to Bangladesh annually. Now Beijing is ready to purchase 300,000 metric tons – over half of Uzbekistan’s total cotton fiber exports – a year, Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency reported on September 25.
"Accords on stable annual supplies to the tune of at least 300,000 metric tons have been achieved by the governments of the two countries. 'Firm' contracts will be signed in October as part of a cotton fair in Tashkent," RIA Novosti quoted a source in the Uzbek cotton industry as saying.
RIA Novosti said that Uzbek cotton exports were expected to total no less than 600,000 metric tons in the 2012-2013 season, slightly less than 620,000 metric tons sold abroad last year.
The new deal means Bangladesh and China will together account for over 83 percent of Uzbek cotton exports. Previously, Bangladesh accounted for 35 percent, China for 15 percent and South Korea for 7 percent, according to RIA Novosti. (Uzbekistan annually produces over 3 million metric tons of raw cotton and over 1 million metric tons of cotton fiber; about 60 percent of the fiber is exported.)
Uzbekistan would supply 200,000 metric tons of cotton to Bangladesh annually under the terms of a new bilateral agreement, Dhaka’s Financial Express newspaper reported on August 5. The deal, which would mark the first time Bangladeshi purchases of Uzbek cotton are regularized, may be signed during an annual industry fair in Tashkent this October, 12news.uz reports.
"Since Uzbekistan is a major source of cotton for us, we want to make the import process easier and uninterrupted. So, we are finalizing the draft of the MoU for signing as soon as possible,” the Financial Express quoted a Bangladeshi official as saying. The memorandum will ensure direct delivery of raw Uzbek cotton “on a regular basis,” the newspaper added.
Human rights groups say deals like this help Tashkent circumvent campaigns designed to end its reliance on forced child labor during the cotton harvest. Uzbekistan, the world’s sixth-largest cotton producer and third-largest exporter, earns over $1 billion from cotton exports annually.
According to the Cotton Campaign, the government forces over a million children and adults to pick cotton each autumn. Over 130 global apparel brands have signed the Responsible Sourcing Network’s pledge not to use Uzbek cotton.
A poster in Tashkent offers a warning about human trafficking.
The United States has given Uzbekistan the lowest possible rating in its annual report on human trafficking and forced labor.
Uzbekistan was downgraded (along with Russia and China) from Tier 2 to Tier 3 in the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report for failing to make sufficient efforts to combat the trade in human flesh.
The June 19 report had harsh words for Tashkent: “The Government of Uzbekistan remains one of only a handful of governments around the world that subjects its citizens to forced labor through implementation of state policy.”
The use of forced labor in the cotton harvest featured strongly in the findings: “Internal labor trafficking remains prevalent during the annual cotton harvest, in which children and adults are victims of government-organized forced labor. There were reports that working conditions in some fields during the cotton harvest included verbal and physical abuse and lack of freedom of movement.”
There was no immediate reaction from Tashkent, which has always denied state-sponsored forced labor and points to its efforts to combat people trafficking.
The US report noted that last year Tashkent enforced a decree banning child labor in the cotton fields, resulting in a “sweeping reduction” in the number of children under age 15 in the harvest, but said that older children and adults were still being forced to reap cotton.
International pressure can affect the abysmal human rights situation in Uzbekistan, it turns out: After years of withering criticism, Tashkent is deploying fewer children into its cotton fields and relying increasingly on teenagers and adults – including public service workers threatened with loss of employment and loss of benefits such as pensions – Human Rights Watch says.
The “abuses persist,” however, in all of Uzbekistan’s provinces, says the New York-based watchdog in a report released late Friday night.
For the 2012 harvest, the Uzbek government forced over a million of its own citizens, children and adults – including its teachers, doctors, and nurses – to harvest cotton in abusive conditions on threat of punishment, Human Rights Watch found. The authorities harassed local activists and journalists who tried to report on the issue. In 2011, Uzbekistan was the world’s fifth largest exporter of cotton.
“The issue here is forced labor, plain and simple” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Forcing more older children and adults to work in the cotton fields to replace some younger children, does not change the fact that Uzbekistan is forcing a million of its people to labor in these fields involuntarily every year at harvest season.”
It is widely acknowledged that the Uzbek government has long relied on forced labor, including of children as young as nine, to pick cotton produced for export. In 2012, the burden was shifted somewhat to older children and adults, according to cotton workers, independent activists, and local rights groups across Uzbekistan who spoke with Human Rights Watch.
Had she known that true stories are sometimes more terrifying than fiction, the little girl may not have pleaded for a bedtime tale.
But in this short film, father yields and tells his daughter of “a rich and powerful man” in a “country far, far away” who grows wealthy off slave labor. Of course, the father is talking about Uzbekistan, and that man is President Islam Karimov: “Schoolchildren have to get on buses and ride for hours to the cotton fields. […] They must pick cotton. All day long. The bag must be filled.”
Teachers, doctors, nurses and children are forced to pick the president’s cotton, the father says. It is a terrifying story, indeed: the thorny plants, the police cordon, schools closed while the children sleep in barns and tents through summer heat and autumn snow. It sounds like a concentration camp.
As her father shuts off the lights, the little girl realizes she is part of this global supply chain: “But the blanket ... and my pajamas … do they also …” – “Yes, they too may come from Uzbekistan. Well, good night,” he says, not so reassuringly.
The video – which ends with the uncomfortable truth, “You most likely sleep in Uzbek cotton” – was released this week by the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights and the Inkota Network. An accompanying article shames Western companies for continuing to purchase Uzbek cotton, companies such as H&M, which “have enormous power to end modern-day slavery,” but don’t.
There are many things the Central Asia countries can’t agree on – but water often tops the list. Now Turkmenistan, which generally allies with inflexible Uzbekistan on water issues, is risking Tashkent’s wrath as it seeks to attract foreign investment to expand and modernize its thirsty cotton industry.
Reuters reports that Textile Industry Minister Saparmyrat Batyrov told an investment conference on October 17 that Ashgabat is seeking more than $1 billion to develop new textile plants by 2016.
Cotton already plays an important role in Turkmenistan’s economy. The country ranks as the world's ninth-largest producer of cotton according to a recent US government estimate.
Turkmenistan's prized “white gold” is used to produce jeans and other cotton products that are exported internationally. The Ashgabat-based Turkmenbashi Textile Complex claims Wal-Mart, Calvin Klein and JC Penney among its clients.
Two issues which blight the cotton industry in Central Asia remain obstacles to these ambitious plans, however -- the abuse of child labor and the region’s scarce water supplies.
Uzbekistan has long faced international scorn for forcing children to pick its cotton. Because Tashkent will not allow international observers to see how its promises of ending the practice are working out, journalists have been left to fill the void.
This year, journalists are finding fewer children in the cotton fields. But conscripted in their place: doctors, nurses and other government employees – along with the same high school and university students as before.
On October 16, the BBC reported that “Tashkent's authorities have required every district to contribute 330 medical staff” to the cotton effort:
Uzbekistan is one of the world's main producers of cotton and the crop is a mainstay of its economy. The government controls production and enforces Soviet-style quotas to get the harvest off the fields as quickly as possible.
A history of using child and forced labour at harvest time has led to a number of retailers - including H&M, Marks and Spencer and Tesco - to pledge to source their cotton from elsewhere.
In response, earlier this year Uzbekistan's Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyayev issued a decree banning children from working in the cotton fields. Yet many adults, including teachers, cleaners and office workers, are still forced to return to the land during October and November.
This year, like last year, medical staff have been ordered to join them. There are reports of patients in towns being turned away because their doctor is "in cotton".