Pandemic Leaves Teachers to Bear Brunt of Cotton Harvest in Turkmenabat

“For obvious reasons” doctors in Turkmenabat in eastern Turkmenistan are exempt from picking cotton this year or paying others to do so in their place. Teachers will bear the additional cotton harvest burden in the 2020 season. This was announced at a staff meeting in one of the city’s schools at the end of August. The “obvious reasons” must be that doctors are busy with the pandemic.

A cotton field overgrown with reeds. Lebap province, September 2020

At 11.00 in the evening on August 28, a meeting was held in the city executive administration under the chairmanship of the deputy mayor for education, culture, health, and sport, Gulnara Jumaeva. The next day the city’s schools held meetings to pass on to all teachers and support staff the news from the meeting. 

“Remember that at this time of year we used to send five to 10 employees to pick cotton, or 15 at the very most, but now we have to send 45 people a day,” the school deputy principals told the teachers. “From today, workers in education must meet the local authorities’ cotton requirements. Our principal heard umpteen complaints at the meeting: you’re not sending many people and you don’t pick much cotton. Many school principals had to explain themselves in writing.”

The deputy principal announced that on Sunday August 30 the entire school staff, both teachers and support workers, would go to pick cotton. They were to meet at the school at 6 in the morning. Members of staff could pay someone else to go in their place, but they each had to escort their replacement to the bus. 

Teachers will have to pick cotton on weekdays as well as Sundays. The school management has divided staff into three groups of 30 to 35 people each. For example, on Monday August 31, 31 people will go to harvest cotton. The list of teachers going to the fields on Tuesday will be announced the day before. So, every teacher will go cotton picking three times during the week and the entire staff will go on Sundays, the deputy principal said. Support staff – cleaners and security guards – have been going cotton-picking in groups of five or six since the second half of August. More of them will go in September.

The source said that staff could buy themselves out of cotton-picking by paying 20 manats (87 U.S. cents) to the school management. Many teachers agree to this, as it’s not realistic for each of them to find someone else for that money. This season hired workers won’t go picking for less than 30 manats a trip ($1.30), which means that every teacher would have to pay 240 manats a month ($10.50).

“Quite a few people are refusing to give money,” the source said. “They say: we didn’t sow that cotton. They can do what they want with it. The principal and his deputies threaten to cut their teaching hours in response, and this will affect their pay packet.”

A teacher working full time earns less than 2,000 manats a month ($87).

  • Every fall in Turkmenistan tens of thousands of public sector employees are threatened with dismissal if they don’t harvest cotton.
  • Sending people to the cotton fields and requiring payment to hire pickers is forced labor and a form of human trafficking. It’s a violation of the country’s labor and criminal codes, and also of several International Labor Organization conventions, signed by Turkmenistan.
  • Because of the use of forced labor, 90 global brands have signed a pledge not to use cotton from Turkmenistan in their products.
  • In 2018, the U.S. government banned Turkmen cotton and textiles from its ports. 
  • Over the past five years Turkmenistan has remained in the lowest tier in the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report.
  • The authorities of Turkmenistan do not acknowledge the problem.