Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

State-led forced labour in the cotton industry

Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, both vital nodes in the textile industry's supply chain, compel citizens to pick cotton, prevent worker organisation, and suppress critics. Could the ILC 2016 change that?

Matt Fischer-Daly
3 June 2016
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Picking cotton in Uzbekistan. Chris Shervey/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by)

Cotton: we all wear it. Its trade has contributed to the evolution of the global economy, and abusive, exploitative, and unfree labour have plagued its production from the outset. This continues today in the cotton sectors of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. This is why we’re urging the governmental, employer, and worker members of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to discuss Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan during the 2016 International Labour Conference (ILC) session on decent work in global supply chains.

More than one million citizens and farmers are forced to pick cotton and deliver production quotas every year, all under the threat of punishment.

While international businesses must be accountable to the workers in their supply chains, decent work also requires governments to apply core labour standards. These include freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining, along with the elimination of forced labour or discrimination at work. As the UN Principles on Business and Human Rights have highlighted, governments have a duty to protect their citizens from human rights violations, including violations of their labour rights. Yet for the 30 million citizens of Uzbekistan and the five million people of Turkmenistan, that remains a long way off.

The governments of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan routinely use state-orchestrated systems of forced labour to produce cotton for global supply chains. Annually, the two governments force more than one million citizens and farmers to pick cotton and deliver production quotas, all under the threat of punishment. This practice violates national and international law, while the income it generates benefits only a small cadre of elite government officials in each country.

During the 2015 harvest, for example, the Turkmen president publicly pressured officials to forcibly mobilise ever greater numbers in order to make up for the low yield. In Uzbekistan, under orders from the prime minister, officials confiscated the property of farmers who fell short of fulfilling their quotas. In both countries, people with the means to do so avoided harvest work only by hiring others to pick ‘their’ cotton quotas for them or by bribing their supervisors.

Keeping workers isolated

Not only are the two countries failing in their duties, but they are actively violating the rights that the ILO exists to defend.

Neither the Turkmen nor Uzbek governments permit freedom of association, and both regularly threaten, detain, and imprison citizens who attempt to report on abuses. The Uzbek government has not ratified ILO Convention No. 87 concerning Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise, and it appoints the leadership of the national union federation itself. Unsurprisingly, that union consistently stands by the government, which has imprisoned and tortured a number of independent union organisers since 2014. In 2015, officials arrested, attacked, and detained independent labour monitors including Dmitry Tikhonov, Elena Urlaeva, and Uktam Pardaev.

The Turkmen government also refuses to permit independent trade unions or civil society organisations. Prior to the 2015 cotton harvest, it intimidated many human rights monitors into silence through acts such as the arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, a journalist for Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty and Alternative Turkmenistan News. He has reported on state corruption and human rights abuses, including in the cotton sector. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UN WGAD) concluded that his detention was arbitrary and in retaliation for exercising his right to freedom of expression.

Important suppliers to global systems

As members of the ILO, the governments of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have committed to applying core labour standards, yet not only are they failing to fulfil their duties but they are actively violating the fundamental rights that the ILO exists to defend. This is especially relevant to the 2016 ILC, since the cotton that the two countries produce is traded through global supply chains. Eighty percent of Turkmenistan’s cotton exports go to Turkey, the second largest source of apparel for the European Union, while 66% of Uzbekistan’s cotton exports go to China and Bangladesh, two of the major supplier countries for the world’s apparel industry.

Ending the use of labour abuses by the Turkmen and Uzbek governments is a fundamental step along the path to decent work in global supply chains. The governments, employers, and worker members of the ILO have a significant opportunity to influence these two governments during their discussion of supply chains at this year’s ILC. We want to see them look at effective enforcement and just prosecution of labour law violators, complaint systems that protect complainants and provide remediation, and respect for independent organising of trade unions and collective bargaining. The ILO member states, employers organisations, and trade unions should use their respective leverage to lead the Turkmen and Uzbek governments to practice these foundations of decent work. This would be a major step towards decent work in global supply chains.

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