The union “told me I had to pick cotton,” said one worker. “They never asked me if I wanted to, they just said ‘you are going’. So what do you call it if not slavery? I cannot quit my job, because I won’t be able to find another, and if I’m lucky enough to find one, it will also have cotton duty.”
Ashgabat (AsiaNews) – Turkmen authorities continue to force public sector employees and students to work in cotton fields in late autumn.
For the first time, police and the National Security Ministry officials in Lebap Mary and Dashoguz regions mobilised in large numbers to supervise cotton fields to prevent negative information about the use of child labour from spreading, Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN) recently reported.
ATN suspects that this measure stems from last year’s reports about child labour, which led some major garment labels to stop buying Turkmen cotton once they found out its origin.
Instead of acknowledging the problem and doing something to stop this shameful practice, local authorities chose to prevent further information leaks. Still news does drip out.
“The chief doctor and the trade-union committee members told me I had to pick cotton,” said one polyclinic worker harvesting cotton in October in a Dashoguz region. “They never asked me if I wanted to, they just said ‘you are going’.
“So what do you call it if not slavery? I cannot quit my job, because I won’t be able to find another, and if I’m lucky enough to find one, it will also have cotton duty. Unlike most of the doctors and many of the nurses, I don’t have spare money to pay for ‘not going’.”
Anyone who feels unfit to take part in the harvest has to pay the equivalent of US$ 5.7 per day or find a replacement.
Workers have to gather at 4:30 am, so that they can start picking cotton by 7:00.
Police cars accompany convoys of around 20 buses, packed with workers, many of whom have to stand in the aisles all the way to the field.
In some cases, workers have to stay two weeks or more.
Pickers receive no state benefits and have to provide for their own material needs like blankets, water, food, and must hope of finding some facility to shelter from bad weather or mosquitoes.
The water available in the fields in most cases is not fit to drink, and cases of vomiting, diarrhoea and so on are not infrequent.
During harvest time, scores of teenagers aged 14-16, as well as adult men and women are forced to offer themselves. The average daily wage from September to early November was the equivalent of US$ 2.85 to US$ 5.7.