JUNE 4 (The Conway Bulletin) — Several international clothing brands, including German sportswear manufacturer Adidas, Hong Kong-listed Esprit, Sweden’s H&M and Britain’s Tesco, accused Turkmenistan’s President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of presiding over a system that used forced labour to pick cotton.
The accusation shifts the focus of forced labour in Central Asia from Uzbekistan, which is already the subject of a ban imposed by most Western fashion labels, to neighbouring Turkmenistan, although campaigners have in the past also accused Kazakhstan and Tajikistan of the practice.
The system is a legacy of the Soviet Union when students, their teachers, doctors and other government workers headed out to the plantations for a few weeks in the harvest season to pick cotton.
“It has been widely reported that every year the Government of Turkmenistan forcibly mobilises tens of thousands of public-sector workers and farmers to cultivate and harvest cotton,” the letter read.
“We urge you to take urgent action to end forced labour in the cotton sector of Turkmenistan.”
The letter, published on May 25 by The Cotton Campaign lobby group, was later disseminated by Turkmen opposition websites. It mirrors other public actions taken by The Cotton Campaign against forced labour in the Uzbek cotton sector.
Sweden’s H&M, one of the biggest high street retailers in Europe, banned Turkmen cotton in December, two years after it imposed a ban on Uzbekistan.
The criticism will sting Turkmenistan. Cotton is its third biggest export, earning around $300m every year.
>>This story was first published on June 10 in issue 284 of the weekly Conway Bulletin website