The U.S. government has banned all imports of cotton goods from Turkmenistan, which activists have accused of rampant use of child and forced labor in cotton harvesting. The Withhold Release Order, filed by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) service on May 18 and made public on May 24, did not specify the reason for the ban.
But members of the U.S. Cotton Campaign, Alternative Turkmenistan News, and International Labor Rights Forum had petitioned the CBP to ban importation of all goods made with Turkmen cotton that was produced with forced labor.
“These three groups alleged that the Turkmen government forces public-sector employees under threat of punishment, including loss of wages and termination of employment, to pick cotton,” the Crowell & Moring International Trade Group said on its website on May 24.
U.S. law prohibits the importation of products produced through slave or child labor or by violating labor laws.
“The decision of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Service is an important step towards the complete cessation of one of the most egregious practices of using forced labor still left in the world,” said Erik Gottwald, director of the International Forum on Labor Rights for Policy Development and Legal Affairs.
Ruslan Myatiev, editor and founder of Alternative Turkmenistan News, said that “annually, the Turkmen government forces tens of thousands of public sector employees, including teachers, nurses, and doctors, to pick cotton, pay a bribe or hire a replacement worker, all under threat of punishment, including loss of wages and termination of employment.”
Several leading global retailers, including H&M and IKEA, have said they were no longer using Turkmen cotton and textiles in their products. Activists have long accused Turkmenistan and some of its Central Asian neighbors of using child and slave labor in their cotton fields and elsewhere. The 2016 Global Slavery Index listed the countries it said have systematically forced their population into labor, including Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Belarus, China, Eritrea, North Korea, Russia, and Vietnam.
The report said that an estimated 15,800 people were believed to be held in “modern slavery” in Turkmenistan.