The US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), an agency of the Department of Homeland Security, has formally banned the importation of “all cotton or cotton products produced in whole or in part with Turkmenistan cotton”. The decision, published on the agency’s website earlier this week, comes two months after non-profit organizations Cotton Campaign, International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) and Alternative Turkmenistan News submitted a petition asking for the ban, claiming that cotton is produced with state-sponsored forced labor in Turkmenistan.
The Turkmen government forces tens of thousands of public sector workers, including teachers and doctors, to pick cotton during the harvest, under threat of punishment, according to a report published by the three non-profit organizations in April, citing findings and reports from US government agencies, the International Labor Organization and the United Nations Human rights Committee. The only ways of getting out of such duty are paying a bribe or hiring a replacement worker. The report also states that a poor harvest in 2017 led some district governors to force children to pick cotton, in violation of both domestic and international laws.
“CBP’s decision is an important step towards ending one of the most egregious cases of state-orchestrated forced labor left in the world”, said Eric Gottwald, legal and policy director at ILRF, in a statement. “Now CBP must put the ban into practice by identifying and stopping specific shipments of goods made with Turkmen cotton”.
US bans Turmen cotton after years of suspicion and ban by major fashion brands
While it may seem that the US government took action right after receiving the petition, the truth is cotton from Turkmenistan has been on a list of goods produced with child labor or forced labor, made by the US Department of Labor, since 2009. According to non-profit organization Human Rights First, approximately 140 billion dollars worth of goods suspected of being made by forced labor enter the US market every year.
Numerous complaints about human rights violations in the Turkmen cotton industry have also prompted leading international companies to stop using cotton from the country in recent years. Inditex and H&M announced their ban on cotton from Turkmenistan in 2015, after doing the same in 2013 with cotton from neighbor Uzbekistan. “H&M under no circumstances accepts underage workers and/or forced labor being used anywhere in our value chain, including in cotton cultivation. Unfortunately this is sometimes the case in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan”, stated the Swedish fast fashion giant at the time.
Ikea followed suit in 2017, stating that, while its audits had not found any irregularities among their suppliers in Turkmenistan, “the overall development in the country in terms of reports on forced and bonded labor doesn’t progress in the right direction”.