In all the regions monitored, forced labor by public sector employees, conscripts, and students in higher education, colleges and vocational schools was used systematically in the cotton harvest. If they refused, public employees risked dismissal, while students might get disciplinary penalties or expulsion from their institution.
Additionally, the public sector workers had to pay a “voluntary contribution” from their salaries “to the successful achievement of the state plan for the cotton harvest.” But there seemed to be no single, common system of requirements. For example, teachers in Turkmenabat were obliged to contribute money twice a week, and to go to the fields themselves every other Sunday or send someone else in their place. In other regions the rules were slightly different. During the eight-day fall break (from October 22), teachers in all the schools in Dashoguz region had either to pick cotton or to pay for a replacement worker to go to the fields.
The use of forced labor is a gross violation of international human rights norms and also of Turkmenistan’s own labor law and criminal code.
The use of public sector employees in the fields disrupts the working rhythm of entire sectors of the economy. The coercion to donate money for the cotton harvest has a negative impact on the well-being of whole families, especially since many of those with a job can barely make ends meet, given the constant rise in food prices. Children also work in the cotton fields, often as workers hired by their own teachers, which prevents them from receiving a full education.
“The Turkmen government consistently denies the use of forced labor in the country during the cotton harvest, despite abundant evidence to the contrary,” said Ruslan Myatiev, editor of turkmen.news. “From an economic and political point of view, it would be much more beneficial for the country’s authorities to put an end to this flawed practice and begin a dialogue with representatives of civil society.”
Coronavirus and cotton
Though there is officially no coronavirus in Turkmenistan, tough restrictions have been introduced in the country: school holidays have been extended, retail, food and service outlets have been closed, and people have been fined for not wearing masks on the street. People are reminded in the media and in schools and organizations about social distancing, the importance of hand hygiene, and other preventive measures against respiratory diseases, but these rules do not apply to cotton pickers. Public sector workers were taken to work in the cotton fields in overcrowded buses, without masks or basic hygiene.
Inefficient cotton production
The report gives examples of the inefficiency of the system for growing and harvesting cotton in Turkmenistan, including the pursuit of fictitious numbers, the lack of transparency in reporting, the corrupt behavior of officials on the ground, and the lack of opportunity for farmers to stand up for their rights.
- While drawing up the plan for the cotton harvest, the government sets unrealistic targets that have to be met. Since the real harvest is often 50% less than the published figures, officials on the ground look for ways to bridge the gap. The report cites the example of a meeting in the town of Turkmengala, where every enterprise, including schools and hospitals, was told to purchase 2.5 tonnes of cotton and take it to a cotton reception point in order to improve the harvest figures.
- The payment system among those involved in cotton production envisages “top-up” cash payments in addition to non-cash payments by check at every stage of cotton growing (mechanized work etc.). The farmers say that paying a top-up is basically giving a bribe to the providers of seeds, fertilizers, irrigation water, and pest and disease control agents.
- The farmers are completely at the mercy of the officials at the cotton reception points, who often simply mark down the weight of the cotton. The heads of the reception points sell the withheld cotton to tenant farmers who had a poor harvest. Or to be more exact, they give them a certificate saying that they handed in more cotton than they really did.
- Specialists think it is quite difficult to harvest the quantity of cotton shown in the tenant farmers’ agreements: “It doesn’t work because of the salinity of the soil, the lack of water and fertilizers, the weather, poor quality seeds and organizational failings. The administrative-command system of management, left over from Soviet times, and the lack of stimulus hold back the development of agriculture in the country. Agricultural producers have become serfs, if not slaves.”
- As a result, the tenant farmers lose the will to work, and many of them are contemplating giving up their plots of land and going and working abroad as soon as the borders are open again.
“Turkmenistan should end this irrational agricultural policy of forcing so many farmers to grow cotton, especially when this is often unprofitable for them,” said Farid Tuhbatullin, chairman of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights. “The state should allow farmers to make their own choice of what to grow on their rented land, thereby improving the country’s food security and the financial position of the farmers at the same time.”
In November 2020, Deputy Prime Minister Esenmyrat Orazgeldiev announced that in future farmers will be able to sow 30% of the land previously used to grow wheat and cotton to other crops of their choice, which would allow the farmers to cover their costs. It is cause for concern, though, that this is possible only if the government order for cotton and wheat has been met in full. President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov made a similar promise in 2018. It’s hard to predict the government order for cotton in 2021 and how much more realistic it will be than all the government’s previous Potemkin orders.
Background: In Turkmenistan, agricultural land belongs to the state. Farmers’ associations (farmers) rent land from the state to grow cotton, wheat and other crops. Every tenant undertakes responsibility to fulfill the plan for the cotton harvest set by the state. If the tenants do not meet their obligations, they are fined and may have their tenancies torn up (their land taken away). The state has monopoly rights to purchase from the tenant farmers specified quantities of crops at prices set by the state. This extremely bureaucratic system is wide open to abuse by state officials and puts tenants and cotton pickers in a straitjacket. The cotton pickers, moreover, are public sector employees who are sent to the fields on a voluntary-compulsory basis on pain of dismissal.
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