While the Turkmen president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, attends the UN General Assembly for the first time since 2015, apparel companies and global investors are expressing their disapproval of the use of state-sponsored forced labor in Turkmenistan’s cotton sector and call for change.
Twelve brands and retailers have already signed the Responsible Sourcing Network’s (RSN) Turkmen Cotton Pledge, which commits companies to not source cotton from Turkmenistan until forced labor in its cotton sector has been eliminated. These companies include: adidas; Columbia Sportswear Company; Designworks Clothing Company; Gap Inc.; H&M Group; M&S; Nike, Inc.; Rowlinson Knitwear Limited; Royal Bermuda, LLC; Sears Holdings; Varner Retail AS; and VF Corporation.
Turkmenistan is the seventh largest producer and seventh largest exporter of cotton in the world. The Turkmen cotton industry is completely controlled by the government. The government compels farmers to grow cotton and determines quotas farmers must fulfill. In order to meet these quotas, tens of thousands of citizens are forced to harvest cotton each fall.
“It is an egregious system. Journalists reporting on this issue are jailed, preventing the country from moving forward with a free-market system,” Ruslan Myatiev, editor and founder of Alternative Turkmenistan News, said.
Turkmenistan exports the majority of its raw cotton to Turkey, Pakistan, India, and China, where the cotton eventually makes its way into many apparel products and home goods that are shipped around the world, including the U.S.
In May 2018, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency issued a “Withhold Release Order” stating that the importation of “all Turkmenistan cotton or products produced in whole or in part with Turkmenistan cotton” could be stopped from entering the U.S.
U.S. companies are now at risk of the protection agency stopping their products at the border if they do not take preventative measures to avoid sourcing cotton from Turkmenistan, where the entire cotton production system is tainted with forced labor of children and adults.
To date, 42 institutional investors have signed a statement urging global home goods and apparel brands and retailers to take action to address exposure to grave human rights abuses in the cotton fields of Turkmenistan.
“It is a material risk to companies and investors to turn a blind eye to this abuse and do nothing,” Lauren Compere at Boston Common Asset Management said. “As responsible corporate actors, all must state their commitments against modern slavery and implement robust due diligence processes to eliminate sourcing Turkmen cotton until state-sanctioned forced labor in the market has stopped.”
In addition to apparel companies signing the pledge, investors are asking them to support RSN’s initiative YESS: Yarn Ethically & Sustainably Sourced, which is a due diligence verification system for yarn spinners—those that purchase raw cotton—to prevent and avoid cotton harvested with forced labor.
“Seven years ago RSN created the Uzbek Cotton Pledge. Due in part to the international community refusing to source cotton harvested with slave labor, we are starting to see a commitment by the government of Uzbekistan to change its antiquated and abusive system,” said Patricia Jurewicz, vice president and founder of RSN.