U.S. bans imports of slave-picked cotton from Turkmenistan

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The United States has banned cotton imported from Turkmenistan due to findings of state-enforced slave labor, a move celebrated by activists who said they hope other nations using enslaved workers will come under similar scrutiny.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will turn away any shipments of cotton originating in the Central Asian nation as violating a 2016 law banning slave-made goods, the agency said on its website.

Cotton grown in the former Soviet Republic has been documented by the U.S. Department of Labor as a product of slave labor run by Turkmen authorities.

The Customs agency did not respond to repeated requests for comment or details.

The ban is “an important step towards ending one of the most egregious cases of state-orchestrated forced labor left in the world,” said the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF).

“Now CBP must put the ban into practice,” said Eric Gottwald, ILRF legal and policy director, in a statement.

The ILRF requested two years ago that Turkmen cotton be banned from the U.S. market but was rejected.

Turkmenistan’s embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment on the decision, which took effect late last week.

“CBP’s ban means retailers and brands need to move quickly to identify and eliminate Turkmen cotton from their supply chains,” said Patricia Jurewicz, a co-founder of the Cotton Campaign, a global coalition aimed at ending child and forced labor in cotton production.

She called on companies to follow the lead of Swedish retail company H&M Group which halted use of cotton from Turkmenistan in 2015 and cotton from Uzbekistan in 2013, according to its website.

The administration of President Barack Obama closed a trade loophole in 2016 that had permitted import of goods derived from forced labor if U.S. demand exceeded domestic production.

But advocates have been concerned the U.S. government would not use its authority to crack down on forced labor imports, said Shawn MacDonald, head of Verite, a non-profit focused on labor and human rights abuses in global supply chains.

“This signals an important change in how CBP is approaching their authority,” MacDonald told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The decision raises hopes that U.S. authorities will target cotton from Uzbekistan, which the Department of Labor also says is produced by forced labor, he said.

More than $140 billion worth of goods suspected of being made by forced labor enters the U.S. market each year, according to New York-based nonprofit Human Rights First.