One step forward, two steps back in Central Asia

 By Tytti Kaasinen, Senior Engagement Manager at GES

Most responsible investors and companies in the garment sector are well aware of the use of forced labour of children and adults in cotton cultivation in Uzbekistan. Over 170 brands have signed the Cotton Pledge of not knowingly sourcing cotton from the country, GES has been engaging on the topic since 2009, and OECD complaints were recently filed against companies involved in the industry as well as two Norwegian investors holding shares in them. But how many are questioning their investees or suppliers about cotton from Turkmenistan?

I attended a two-day cotton conference in Berlin in the beginning of July, both to hear the latest developments in the campaign against forced labour in harvesting and to present what GES and responsible investors can do and are doing to address the problem. As the only investor representative in the conference, I was pleased to be able to highlight our long-standing determination to improve associated companies’ business conduct in Uzbekistan. However, the conference also drew attention to a lesser-publicised but very similar issue of government-driven forced labour in Turkmenistan. There, too, cotton is a very important commodity for the national economy, and public employees and private entrepreneurs are forced to contribute to weeding and harvesting. Transparency is even worse than in Uzbekistan when it comes to the number of people affected, financial flows and where the cotton is sold to, but to me this certainly feels like a risk that companies and investors alike should be proactively investigating. Already, I was shown a Turkish jeans manufacturer with a joint venture in Turkmen cotton sector, which on its website lists many high street brands as its customers. This is new information and no-one seems to have picked up on it so far. Needless to say, GES will examine the claims further and include questions about Turkmenistan in our engagement with relevant companies. This once again goes to show how complex the cotton supply chain is and how important it is to improve traceability: possible links to forced labour in Uzbekistan is just one of the dangers lurking upstream.

Apropos Uzbekistan, that more people are aware of the problem does not unfortunately mean that it is well on its way to being solved. Sure, there has been progress: the number of children forced to pick cotton has decreased dramatically since 2012 and Uzbekistan started cooperating with the ILO last year when a three-year Decent Work Country Programme was commenced. But the Berlin conference reiterated that the structural obstacles to fairness and efficiency in the government-controlled cotton sector remain intact, adult forced labour has intensified, farmers are just as much under the authorities’ mercy as they were before, public services suffer every week that e.g. doctors and teachers are sent to the fields en masse, reports on cotton-related extortion and abuse of citizens continue, independent monitoring of working conditions is still not allowed, and more information about international companies being requested to contribute to the harvest is surfacing.

While child labour is perhaps the cause most likely to create a sense of urgency and mobilise companies, investors and consumers to act, concerns were raised in Berlin that it is harder to win sympathy for forced adult labour and that the pressure on the Uzbek government will consequently not be maintained. Accordingly, the case for engagement remains as strong as ever and responsible investors must play their part in ensuring that the situation will not lapse back but instead Uzbekistan is encouraged to continue towards complete elimination of the forced labour system. The 2015 harvest in Uzbekistan starts on 15th September: who will be doing the picking and did they have the chance to say no?

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