Cotton Production in Turkmenistan: Use of Forced Labor in an Inefficient System
For the second consecutive year the main national holiday in Turkmenistan — Independence Day — is being celebrated on September 27. Last year it was brought forward a month by decision of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov.
Following long-established tradition, preparations start long before the holiday itself. This time they began on August 10. Despite the unrelenting heat — from morning the temperature in Ashgabat is 30 degrees and by afternoon it’s well over 35 — the employees of state institutions must attend rehearsals several times a week. They are released from their main jobs and sent to the Dagdan stadium near the railway station. They begin at 7.00 in the morning but even such an early start doesn’t save them from the heat. To be on the safe side, there’s always an ambulance on duty at the entrance to the stadium.
Somebody always needs the help of the paramedics: people complain of weakness, headaches, and nausea, and there are instances of fainting too.
At the rehearsals people have to synchronize various formations, learn to march in step, and loudly shout “Arkadaga shohrat!” or “Glory to Arkadag!” and other chants and slogans. (Arkadag, meaning Protector, is an honorific title of President Berdimuhamedov.)
Students are also involved in the preparations, although the academic year hasn’t yet begun.
“There won’t be any lessons for a whole month [September],” one of the students said while waiting for rehearsals to start. “I’m in the fourth year of my course and it’s been like this every year.”
“A coercive holiday” is what residents call it in other parts of the country where rehearsals have also started.
“It’s not worth refusing,” a kindergarten teacher from Turkmenabat said. “They’ll threaten you with the sack on the slightest pretext. No one wants to risk losing their job. And everyone knows that after Independence Day people will be sent en masse to the cotton harvest.”
Some women have to bring their children to the rehearsals, where the youngsters sit in the full glare of the sun waiting for their mothers. It’s still the school holidays in Turkmenistan and there’s often no one at home to watch the 10- to 12-year-olds.
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