RSN’s Cotton Program supports supply chains of our clothing and bedding that are free of forced labor in the fields where the cotton for these products is grown.
While forced labor remains endemic in many countries, nowhere is it more organized than in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, where the governments collectively force over one million citizens to labor in each country’s cotton fields every year. The governments shut down schools and public offices for months at a time, mobilize their country’s youth, teachers, nurses, and civil servants, and send them to the fields to harvest cotton. They can be expelled, fired, or lose benefits if they don’t fill their daily quotas.
The Uzbek government uses local law enforcement to mobilize workers; and detains and tortures human rights defenders seeking to monitor the harvests. The government dictates the price of inputs (seeds and fertilizers), controls irrigation, tells the farmers what to plant and when to plant it, and purchases the crops for a fraction of the market price. This abusive practice, a relic of Uzbekistan’s Soviet past, earns the Government of Uzbekistan over one billion dollars annually.
Each cotton season, Turkmen public sector workers are forced by the government to fulfill cotton picking quotas and private businesses are forced to contribute to the efforts financially or with labor. To fulfill these quotas, parents often have to recruit their children’s help, despite national and international laws against forced and child labor. Every year, the harvest leaves schools, businesses, and health institutions understaffed or closed, placing a huge burden on the health, education, and general well-being of Turkmen citizens.
RSN is part of the Cotton Campaign, a coalition advocating with governments, companies, and investors to use their leverage to end this continuous and systematic human rights violations. Together with the Cotton Campaign, RSN collaborates with a broad network of NGOs, apparel brands and retailers, investors, industry associations, and trade unions seeking to end forced labor in Uzbekistan’s and Turkmenistan’s cotton sectors with a variety of tools and strategies. We leverage our unique position as a sustainable, responsible, and impact (SRI) investor, and as a NGO to ensure major apparel brands and retailers are not sourcing cotton from Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan until their governments stop exploiting unwilling citizens during their cotton harvests.
To achieve this, we are implementing solutions that will further collaboration, transparency, traceability, and accountability. RSN hosts the Cotton Pledge for companies to sign committing to not use Uzbek cotton and we will be launching a pledge addressing Turkmen cotton in the near future. We recently launched the initiative YESS: Yarn Ethically and Sustainably Sourced to drive slavery out of cotton production by implementing a due diligence verification program with cotton yarn spinners.
Our efforts and those in our network are succeeding. The Uzbek government has stopped sending the youngest children, those ages 7 - 14, to the cotton fields on a massive scale. Now we aim to stop the forced labor of older students and adults throughout the cotton fields of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.